With the state of Texas slipping into moderate drought conditions in recent months — and the specter of a catastrophic drought hanging over residents’ heads — access to local water is as important as ever.
In Bell and Lampasas counties, with a significant population of rural landowners, recent moves by municipal water utilities have sparked concern over who controls the tap when water runs short.
This week, the Herald reached out to the Texas House District 54 candidates by email in a continuing series on topics of most concern to the area. This week’s topic: water rights.
Here’s what the candidates had to say about the state of the district’s water and their platform to keep the taps running in this area.
Killeen is one of a group of area cities that contracts with the Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 for drinking water from two area reservoirs.
The WCID is the sole wholesale water provider to Killeen and treats the city’s wastewater. However, the district is one step removed from the average water customer, who pays the city of Killeen for access.
For areas outside Killeen, municipalities are looking for representation on area water boards and secure access to clean water.
Incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper, R-Killeen, said he would work to provide greater transparency to water districts if he is elected — continuing work he started during the 85th Legislature in 2017.
“I support legislation that helps to improve the transparency and efficiency of local water districts,” Cosper said. “I helped vote SB 625 out of the Special Purpose Districts Committee, a bill that passed during the previous legislative session, which would require certain special purpose districts to annually provide financial records to be published online by the Texas Comptroller.”
Republican Dr. Brad Buckley, a Killeen veterinarian, wanted to aim higher than the WCID level, targeting state groups like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Brazos River Authority to improve communication with local stakeholders.
“I will work to ensure that TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) and other government agencies are responsive to the needs of our communities so that new water resources can be brought online in a timely and efficient manner and water quality and reliability is improved,” Buckley said. “In Texas, groundwater belongs to the landowner. I will always fight for property rights so that our farmers and ranchers can utilize their water resources to earn their living.”
Republican Larry Smith, a contractor and retired Army captain, said Bell County needed to maintain control of its area water sources without interference from outside players.
“(We) need to prevent cross-county population centers from voting away our surface water,” he said. “For example, if Georgetown wants to build their own reservoir then they need to have the freedom to do so; but the reason they are not is because they can use their own geography for commercial and residential development while taking advantage of reservoirs already built in Bell County.”
Democrat Kathy Richerson promoted more local representation on state water boards.
“We need local representatives who are able to vote on the regional water authority board, Brazos G (Regional) Planning (Group). Having a good attorney to protect your rights is a good idea,” she said.
Many Texans remember the catastrophic drought from 2011-15 that wiped out water reservoirs and threatened farming and livestock operations throughout the state.
With the state on the verge of entering another major drought, according to some estimates, the candidates highlighted the need for investment in retention technology and long-term planning.
Cosper said technology would be the key to minimizing the effect of future droughts.
“The state needs to implement more desalinization processes in order to utilize current brackish water, making it potable and available for public consumption,” Cosper said. “We will continue to utilize new technology, build new reservoirs and implement aquifer injection methods to maximize rainfall retention and aquifer storage.”
Buckley doubled down on the need for new technology, saying: “I will support innovative, effective and emerging technologies that will help us capture excess surface water when appropriate,” Buckley said. “I will support efforts to conserve, reuse and repurpose our current supply of water thus making us better able to deal the effects of drought in our cities. The needs of rural Texans in District 54 must not be overlooked and proper planning for alternative water sources must be ongoing.”
Smith said the needs of counties without reservoir systems should be a high priority.
“All counties in Texas need a reservoir system that should be adequate for the maintenance of their population,” Smith said. “If water is the Achilles heel of Texas then it should be a priority for the Legislature to protect the economic interests of the state of Texas by ensuring a water shortage does not devastate communities.”
Richerson, who owns land on the Bell County line, said droughts were a way of life — but consumers could take small steps to avoid the worst effects of a drought.
“I had a county agent who once described Texas weather as one long drought interrupted by periodic floods,” Richerson said. “Drought management is basically preplanning conservation and recapture. Farmers and ranchers can stock their places using more efficient plans for what their land can carry through a drought.”
Southern Bell County residents were thrown a curve ball in December 2015, when the Texas Public Utility Commission approved the takeover of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, a water provider, by the city of Georgetown.
The approved merger will fold the 340-square-mile special utility district in Burnett, northern Williamson and southern Bell counties and its approximately 7,000 drinking water customers with the city of Georgetown. A lawsuit from Bell County Commissioner John Fisher and a group of district customers is still moving through the Texas legal system.
Cosper, who was the mayor of Killeen at the time of the PUC vote, said he worked with the House Special Purpose Districts Committee during the legislative session to bring light to the takeover and vowed to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
“Transparency and effective, regular communication between a water district, its customer base, and any potential customers is an absolute necessity to avoid another situation like what occurred with the Chisholm Trail SUD,” he said. “As we move forward, Bell County residents should rest assured that I am using all available resources to ensure that better communication and a transparent and delineated plan for dissolutions or mergers will prevent this situation from repeating itself again.”
Buckley said the takeover was “unfortunate and unacceptable” and said the move stripped away representation for some Bell County water customers.
“This is a prime example of a neighboring municipality encroaching on and impacting the ability of Bell County landowners to meet their water needs of the future,” Buckley said. “For these residents and landowners, their path to developing their land now leads through the city of Georgetown and elected officials for which they have no ability to hold accountable. This event should serve notice that our water must be protected, and locally elected officials must always join the fight.”
Smith agreed the move benefited the city of Georgetown at the expense of Bell County residents.
“That specific utility district was drawn to benefit the population of Georgetown by using the geography of Bell County,” Smith said. “Any community affected by a utility district should have the right to influence how those utilities are used; not just the ones inside a political boundary.”
Richerson simply said the move was a boon for the city of Georgetown.
“The transfer of Chisholm Trail to the City of Georgetown was quite a coup for the city,” Richerson said. “It virtually guaranteed their growth by giving them miles of pipeline and thousands more customers and a foothold into undeveloped land.”