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Water was a hot issue for 79th Legislature.

By Tom Harvey

At this writing, a handful of proposed new laws concerning water resources were still alive in the Texas Legislature. Many of these concern groundwater and springs, and all would affect fish and wildlife.

The big one was Senate Bill 3, which was supported by elected leaders and conservation groups, but which died in the House of Representatives. This bill would have set aside a certain amount of water for wildlife and the environment. It would also have allowed existing water rights holders to “voluntarily convert reasonable amounts of existing water rights to use for environmental flow protection,” a provision that opens the way for conservation groups to acquire existing water rights and dedicate them for wildlife. The bill sought to balance wildlife needs with other beneficial uses, including provisions to release environmental set-aside water for other needs in emergency situations. SB 3 specifically recognized the importance of land stewardship, stating that “… land stewardship enhances the efficiency and effectiveness of this state’s watersheds by helping to increase surface and groundwater supplies, resulting in a benefit to the natural resources of this state and to the general public.” At press time, a last-ditch effort was underway to try to attach some of these provisions to other legislation.

SB 3 was the latest in a series of landmark water laws. Almost a decade ago, SB 1 required for the first time that environmental water needs be considered alongside cities, industry and agriculture. SB 2 in a later session helped clarify the rules and directed state agencies to determine how much water is needed for rivers to protect their ecological health.

A number of bills, if passed, would affect interbasin transfers, allowing senior water rights to remain senior after transfer. Current law requires that when water is transferred from one river basin to another, it becomes a junior water right in the new basin.

Several bills could implement recommendations of the Water Conservation Task Force set up by the legislature last year, a group that included Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director Robert L. Cook. These include promoting water conservation through public awareness efforts, prioritizing funding for water conservation, requiring conservation plans from some public utilities, and reviewing existing rules that tend to work against conservation.

Another suite of bills in the session concerned groundwater, many of them stimulated by controversial proposals to pump and sell water on state land in western Texas. If passed, these would have created a moratorium and a new process for leasing state-owned land for groundwater production, provide ownership rights for groundwater in-place (as opposed to pumped water), make the Texas Water Development Board the ultimate decision maker on groundwater availability, create a conflict resolution process for disagreements on groundwater plans, and require state-owned land to be subject to groundwater district rules.

For the latest information on specific legislation, visit <www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlo/legislation/legislation.htm>

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