Montomery County water fight could move to ballot box
Montgomery would elect, not appoint, groundwater deciders under House bill
Published in the Houston Chronicle by Matthew Tresaugue
The constant wrangling over Montgomery County's underground water supplies could soon move from the courthouse to the ballot box.
With a legal challenge to the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District's pumpage restrictions pending, there's a new legislative push to alter the makeup of its governing board from nine appointed members to five elected ones.
The reasoning: the board's critics might be able to get the changes they want by appealing to voters instead of judges.
The legislation, House Bill 1982, is authored by state Rep. Will Metcalf, a Conroe Republican. Metcalf said he has heard from many people upset with the district's new limits on pumping from the Gulf Coast Aquifer, once the county's go-to source for water.
The current "structure does not allow the citizens of Montgomery County to have a voice; therefore, the board members are not held accountable to the citizens of Montgomery County," Metcalf said. "Instead they are responsive only to the different special interest groups that are fortunate enough to have a seat at the table."
The bill comes as Texas' nearly 100 groundwater conservation districts are under increasing scrutiny. That's because of a basic conundrum with the state's rules when it comes to drilling for water: landowners own the reserves beneath their property, but agencies like Lone Star can regulate it.
That underlying conflict has led to upheaval in other parts of state. Voters, for example, replaced four of five members on the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District's board with more conservative property rights advocates after the board tried limit the amount of water pumped from individual wells in 2011.
"People like the idea of groundwater conservation districts until they have to start restricting use," said Ronald Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University.
With an elected board for Lone Star, "the rules will change," Kaiser said. "But it could be penny-wise and pound-foolish."
State lawmakers created Lone Star in 2001 to replenish and manage underground water supplies for the long haul. Voters later approved the district by a 3-to-1 margin.
Cap creates conflict
Tensions began to rise three years ago when the district proposed to limit the amount of water that rapidly growing Montgomery County could pump from underground to avoid depleting the aquifer and causing land to sink. The cap, which is now in effect, represents a 30 percent reduction in groundwater use.
To bridge the gap and help satisfy new demands, the San Jacinto River Authority, which manages Lake Conroe, began supplying water from the man-made reservoir to 151 cities and utility districts. The transition increased the monthly bill for a household using 10,000 gallons by $26.
The city of Conroe and several utility providers sued Lone Star over the rules in 2015, arguing that the district overreached by regulating the pumping of groundwater in ways the Legislature never authorized. A trial date hasn't been set.
Some local leaders and residents also have questioned the science behind the decision to limit the use of groundwater, saying the aquifer isn't in danger of depletion. At the same time, they have accused Lone Star of scheming with the San Jacinto River Authority on the push to use more expensive surface water.
The river authority, which manages the lake, has a seat on Lone Star's board. Montgomery County, Conroe and The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency are among the other entities making appointments to the nine-member body.
The appointees typically are engineers, bureaucrats, lawyers and others with backgrounds in water. Last week, however, Montgomery County's commissioners decided to replace longtime board member Richard Tramm with former Conroe Mayor Webb Melder in an unusually public hearing.
"The biggest mistake I made as mayor of Conroe was that I trusted two state agencies," Melder told the commissioners, referring to Lone Star and the river authority. "I see a strong need to return the board back to the citizens of Montgomery County and not special interests."
The bill, if adopted, would reduce the board to five members - elected from each of Montgomery County's four precincts, plus one at large. The first election would be in November 2018. The following elections would be staggered so that no more than three seats come before voters at one time.
State Reps. Cecil Bell Jr. of Magnolia and Mark Keough of The Woodlands have signed onto the bill. Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who previously served on the Lone Star board, said he would propose similar legislation shortly.
"I believe we are all in agreement that the citizens of Montgomery County prefer an elected form of governance rather than appointed," Creighton said of the county's legislative delegation.
Lone Star won't oppose the bills because it's the Legislature's job to decide how the board is structured, said Paul Nelson, the district's assistant general manager.
But Jace Houston, the San Jacinto River Authority's general manager, has taken exception to any suggestion that his appointment to Lone Star's board created a conflict of interest.
"No single board member controls the district," Houston wrote in a recent op-ed, adding that every director, including Conroe's appointee, voted to approve the restrictions.
Still, Michael Massey, who owns a house along Lake Conroe, said the change is necessary.
"The prospect of anyone speaking on behalf of the river authority is nil," he said. "We're in for a completely new order."