With Texas’ rapid population growth and economic development, lawmakers frequently warn of potential future battles over the state’s finite water resources.
But there’s an ongoing skirmish in our own backyard that has drawn scant attention from Killeen residents.
At issue is the city of Georgetown’s application to acquire the facilities, assets and water rights of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District. The district, headquartered in Florence, serves about 7,300 customers, including about 200 in southwestern Bell County.
A group of Florence-area Chisholm Trail customers last year approached Georgetown about the takeover, but another group of customers in southwestern Bell County objected to the acquisition, citing concerns about accessibility to water for potential future developments.
The issue has now gone before an administrative law judge with the State Office of Administrative Hearings, who will determine whether the takeover is in the parties’ best interests and make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
A preliminary hearing was held May 28 to designate who would be admitted to testify in the contested-case hearing.
The discovery phase began June 6, and last week the deadline passed for the protestants to produce documentation and identify testifying experts. The applicant’s filing of direct case testimony and exhibits must be completed by Aug. 25; the protestants’ deadline is Sept. 15. Depositions of witnesses are due by Sept. 22, followed by several other court-mandated procedural deadlines.
The process culminates with a three-day hearing in Austin, starting Oct. 27.
If it sounds like a big deal, it is.
Chisholm Trail currently has about 11,000 acre-feet of water available, though much of that water is committed to existing customers and developers. If the merger goes through, 9,300 acre-feet would go to Georgetown, according to information from the Chisholm Trail district.
A document on Chisholm Trail’s website states the district is 90 percent suburban, with 95 percent of its growth in the Georgetown, Leander and Liberty Hills areas. A merger with Georgetown, proponents say, would give Chisholm Trail customers lower rates and greater access to capital for improvement projects.
But opponents of the merger argue providing water for growth in the areas close to Georgetown is likely to shortchange rural developers and homeowners.
And that’s a potential issue that deserves scrutiny by Killeen-area residents.
Bell County Commissioner John Fisher, one of five Chisholm Trail customers the judge authorized to protest the merger on behalf of the Chisholm Trail Stakeholders group, expressed concern that once Georgetown has its additional water rights, the district would make growth within its extraterritorial jurisdiction a priority, and rural areas south of Killeen would be an afterthought.
Fisher — who is not representing the county in the hearing — noted that Killeen’s city limit already extends two miles south of the Lampasas River, and the city’s ETJ reaches to the Florence city limit. The commissioner, who lives just outside of Killeen’s southernmost boundary, said the only access to water in southwest Bell County is through well water, and accessibility to water directly correlates to land values.
Another of Fisher’s concerns is representation. The Chisholm Trail district is run by an elected seven-member board of directors, with all customers eligible to vote. But with the Georgetown City Council overseeing the new district, customers living outside the city would have no recourse at the polls if they differ over water policy or rates.
While Killeen may still be several years away from significant commercial or residential development in the area Chisholm Trail serves, it seems odd that city officials have not weighed in on the merger or attended any of the public meetings.
It’s not too late for Killeen’s leaders to offer their testimony in the case; it’s vital that the judge hear from all potentially affected parties. With the city’s long-term future at stake, it’s time to join the battle.