Friday, May 10, 2013

Pushback on Aquifer Protection | Casey's Last Word

There’s a long-standing tradition in the Texas Legislature.

If you want to pass a bill that would curtail the ability of the people in Austin or San Antonio to place environmental regulations on developers, you get a legislator from somewhere else in the state to carry the bill.

For example, the two times a bill was introduced in the Senate to undermine regulations by San Antonio, Austin and San Marcos to limit development over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, it was carried by Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston.

The reason is simple.

For at least 40 years, voters here have demonstrated that they want to protect the aquifer from the danger of pollution that could come from massive development over areas north and west of the city, where water goes into the huge aquifer through caves and sinkholes.

In the mid-1970s, voters overturned City Council’s approval of a large mall over the recharge zone.

Through the years, council candidates identified as carrying water for developers have been repeatedly defeated.

And voters have repeatedly voted to tax themselves for a fund to buy sensitive land over the recharge zone.

But developers are a persistent and politically powerful breed.

I’ve often said that they always lose at the polls – and win at City Hall. 

And they often win at the Legislature.

But it was a surprise when this year’s assault on aquifer protection ordinances was introduced by freshman Republican Sen. Donna Campbell.

Three-fourths of her senate district is made up of much of North San Antonio and Bexar County.

It runs all the way up to parts of San Marcos and Austin.

Jon Oliver, press secretary for Campbell, admits that she too had received “some pushback” on her Senate Bill 1919. 

It says that any regulations requiring that more than 55 percent of land being developed over the recharge zone be free of “impervious cover” – roofs, driveways, parking lots and so on – amounts to a “taking.”

San Antonio has a sliding scale that requires that as much as 85 percent of land over the recharge zone remain uncovered. 

Austin and San Marcos require 80 percent.

Under Campbell’s bill, cities would be required to either negotiate a conservation easement with the landowner or exercise eminent domain to condemn the property.

Either could be expensive.

Campbell says it’s a matter of property rights.

But San Antonio’s regulations were drawn through a long and tough negotiation between developers and environmental interests.

Despite a total lack of publicity, environmental groups rallied against Campbell’s bill.

Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said scores of members from here to Austin contacted Campbell’s office.

Former City Councilwoman Bonnie Conner, for one, said she was unable to get through to her senator.

“I was only able to send an e-mail,” she said.

Peace said her organization includes more than a few members of the Tea Party, a major source of votes for Campbell.

She said they expressed confidence Campbell would never sponsor such a bill

Clean water, it seems, is a non-partisan issue.

Nevertheless, Campbell pushed for a committee hearing and got one scheduled for this past Wednesday.

Unfortunately, Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who chairs the committee and whose staff says she has concerns about the bill, suffered the loss of a grandchild the day before.

The hearing was cancelled.

Campbell spokesman Oliver admits that the bill’s chances of passage now are dim.

It may be Campbell’s good fortune that her bill has enjoyed such a brief and quiet life.

Campbell moved from Columbus to New Braunfels in order to run for the Senate.

She has a lot to learn about folks in these parts.

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