In recent years, the state of Texas has suffered through crippling drought conditions annually, and new water sources are scarce as the population grows.
Water supply and conservation could likely be a top priority Texas House District 54 after Election Day on Nov. 6.
Dr. Brad Buckley, of Salado, the GOP nominee for the seat, and Kathy Richerson, of Bell County, the Democrat in the race, are both calling for more conservation and a spotlight on the rural stretches of the district as drought conditions continue to sweep through the area.
With roughly a month to go before the general election, the Herald asked Richerson and Buckley to highlight their platforms on providing clean, accessible water to the district and preparing for the next big drought.
While Killeen — and its roughly 145,000 population — dominates District 54’s voting base, rural land covers most of the western expanses of the district that covers Lampasas County and most of southern Bell County, requiring state representatives to balance different demands.
For Buckley, a resident of Salado, the way to manage the district’s needs is to promote cooperation at the local, state and federal level.
“Managing both current and future water needs will require a keen understanding of surface and groundwater science, water law, and legislation — and how each may affect water availability and water quality for the citizens of District 54,” Buckley said. “A deep understanding of the Brazos River Authority, the Underground Water Conservation Districts, water supply corporations, and wholesalers and water retailers will be crucial to effectively manage and legislate our water issues and needs of the future.”
The Brazos River Authority is the state’s designated controller for surface water in the Brazos River Basin. That basin includes Belton and Stillhouse Hollow Lakes, which provide drinking water to most of eastern District 54.
Buckley promoted an intergovernmental approach to securing water rights for the district and strengthening the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which has committed $8 billion in water infrastructure projects in the last three years.
“Working with county and city governments and special utility districts to better understand their future water needs will drive my efforts on the legislative front,” Buckley said. “I will support the SWIFT program so that local political subdivisions and local non-profit water supply corporations can fund and implement projects identified (by) the citizens of District 54 and strongly advocate in the state water plan. Additionally, I will pay special attention to the affordability and quality of the water consumed ...for fair pricing and timely notifications of adverse water quality.”
By contrast, Richerson highlighted the need for local education on water conservation rather than a coordinated effort with government bureaucracy.
“People are going to have to find a way to change habits because you have a lot of water that just drains down the sink,” Richerson said. “A lot of that is just education.”
Richerson said the district was becoming increasingly urban as more residents flood into Central Texas, putting a strain on providing future supply.
“A lot of what we are going through is a transition, and you have to learn to adjust to what’s going on around you,” Richerson said. “I would like to see them look at new ways to find more resources. One of the problems we have is we are limited by the amount of water that’s here, but we are unlimited on the number of people that are coming here. “
Cities like Killeen, Harker Heights and Nolanville rely on surface water supply from Belton Lake — and soon Stillhouse Hollow Lake — but most rural areas rely on underground aquifers for drinking water.
In the event of a serious drought, with residents and industry pulling aquifer water faster than the aquifers can replenish, rural residents are at increased risk.
Two major aquifers located are within the district: the Edwards Aquifer and the Trinity Aquifer. Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District monitors aquifer levels in Bell County.
In July, district manager Dirk Aaron rang the alarm bell on the state of the Edwards Aquifer as drought conditions led to the implementation of Stage 3 of the district’s drought plan.
“The fact that most wells are experiencing significant drawdown in the last two months is due to the drought conditions and over use of groundwater,” Aaron said in a July 31 news release. “The staff continues to get reports from local well drillers and landowners in both Bell and Williamson Counties that their wells are stressed.”
The Edward Aquifer is still in Stage 3, which recommends a 30 percent reduction in groundwater use. The Trinity Aquifer is in Stage 1, recommending a 10 percent reduction in use.
Buckley said recent drought conditions throughout Texas shone a spotlight on the need for further study of aquifer recovery and vigilance in water use.
“The data shows an alarming change in the groundwater conditions, especially in Bell County,” Buckley said. “This fact will require a vigilant study of the cause of these changes and an open and honest regional discussion to address this issue.”
Buckley said he intended to support legislation to promote more study of aquifer modeling and monitoring, if he is elected.
“I support efforts to study the status and behavior of our aquifers and I will support legislation that provides for this,” Buckley said. “We must also develop ways to capture, store and treat excess surface water in times of flooding and runoff to create additional water resources.”
Richerson, who owns a well on her rural Bell County property, said her experience as a farmer informed her approach to practical conservation and working to tell farmers and ranchers how to plan long term and not strain aquifer reserves.
“If you’re a farmer and you don’t pay attention to best practices, you lose money,” Richerson said. “Just use good practices.”
While managing the district’s current resources are a high priority, securing future resources is a primary goal for politicians at the local and state level.
In 2015, southern Bell County residents lost some of that security when the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District, an area water provider in southern Bell County and northern Williamson County, was bought out by the city of Georgetown.
In response to the merger, Bell County Commissioner John Fisher and a group of district customers filed two lawsuits to halt the Texas Public Utility Commission-approved dissolution of the 340-square-mile district and its approximately 7,000 drinking water customers with the city of Georgetown.
It was the first time a Texas city has merged with a special utility district. Fisher’s two lawsuits remain in litigation.
Buckley said the Chisholm Trail deal was representative of local and state governments not closely watching neighboring cities battle for control of limited resources.
“The takeover of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District by the city of Georgetown is a prime example of how vigilant and protective we must be,” Buckley said. “As precious as water has become to our area, it is imperative that we protect our current supply as a first order of business. This controversy highlights the need for strong leadership on behalf of the citizens of District 54 to protect our current water supply, employ smart and proven conservation programs, and innovate to increase water availability for the future.”
Richerson, who lives within the former special utility district’s boundaries, said Georgetown was thinking longer term than Bell County, highlighting the need for forward-looking leaders.
“Somebody over there was thinking way ahead,” she said. “It’s kind of like a business, you have to be able to think about your long-term interests. You need to have people in this district working more closely together for the best interests of residents.”
Protecting farmers, ranchers
According to demographic data on District 54, individuals involved in agriculture make up only 1.3 percent of all district residents. But for Buckley, a veterinarian, and Richerson, a goat farmer, that small population is at the forefront of their priority list.
On Aug. 29, as widespread drought conditions swept the state, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue designated 37 counties, including Lampasas County, as “primary natural disaster areas.” That designation allowed residents in the agriculture industry to apply for emergency loans to offset losses caused by drought.
An additional 65 counties, including Bell and Coryell counties, had been previously designated as natural disaster areas by the federal government.
Buckley said he would focus on legislation that strengthens “rule of capture” for rural residents, a principle that guarantees the ownership of the water resources beneath a landowner’s property.
“Farmers and ranchers in District 54 depend on their water for their living — it is literally their lifeblood,” Buckley said. The rule of capture guarantees the ownership of the water resources beneath their property and I will work to promote and support legislation that protects this right. In doing so, we must fully understand the impact that development and increases in population are having on our groundwater supply.
Buckley also said his push to further study area aquifers would have a positive effect on ranchers and farmers, who rely on groundwater for their livelihoods.
“Studying our aquifers and how they behave in all types of conditions is an important step in protecting farmers and ranchers,” Buckley said. “Constituents in the rural areas of District 54 have shared with me their desire to have a reliable source of water for their livestock, families, and ultimately their livelihood, and they support efforts to understand the
many factors that impact the aquifers and groundwater on which they depend.”
Richerson said the job of a farmer and rancher is a difficult one hamstrung by uncertain weather and low profit margins. That’s why it’s important for state and local leaders to help educate them on best practices, she said.
“To be a farmer is a tough way to live,” Richerson said. “You have to have a lot of faith that things are going to work out. You have no control over the weather, you’re going to have good years and you’re going to have bad years. That’s why I would like to see more education and more local leaders stepping up.”