Heavy rains across the state filled up rivers and lakes across the state in May, but the prospects of legislators addressing the state's patchwork system of regulating groundwater dried up as the 84th legislative session nears its end.
Local districts manage groundwater along county lines, even though aquifers flow across them. There is little agreement on how to measure the amount of groundwater reasonably available to pump.
Thirsty cities looking for groundwater in remote areas complain of dealing with provincial districts that are too stingy with their water, while some rural landowners fear losing local control over a precious resource. And concern is mounting over the amount of fresh groundwater used by energy companies for fracking. The same conflicts hinder access to the estimated trillions of gallons of brackish groundwater — which can be drinkable after expensive treatment called desalination — and lawmakers can’t even decide how to define the word “brackish.”
While the Legislature didn’t change the state’s patchwork system of oversight for groundwater, legislation addressing groundwater regulation in Central Texas’ Hays County passed at the end of the session.
A company’s proposal to pump huge amounts of groundwater from underneath Hays County without almost no oversight has spurred Hill Country residents to demand better regulation of the area's aquifers. Legislation to transfer the land in question to a conservation district appeared dead after a point of order targeting the bill was sustained. But that ruling was overturned and the measure advanced.
Updated: June 1, 2015
While several Republican officials in Texas have criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Clean Power Plan,” aimed at curtailing greenhouse gases, Texas legislators have also targeted more local environmental regulations.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation aiming to quicken regulators’ pace of cranking out permits for major industrial projects by limiting public scrutiny. Proponents say the new law addresses the state’s current slow-moving bureaucracy that was driving would-be employers to other states. Critics say the law stifles the voice of everyday Texans raising concerns about proposed industrial projects. And the EPA has raised concerns about the measure.
Abbott also signed legislation that would pre-empt local efforts to regulate a wide variety of drilling-related activities. He said Texas needs to avoid a “patchwork of local regulations” that threaten oil and gas production. But environmentalists and some local officials say the legislation is a blow to the authority cities have long tapped to ensure local health and safety.
Legislators approved a bill that sets a five-year statute of limitations and cap payouts at about $2 million when counties sue companies that have fouled their water or air. Opponents say that state regulators already fall short and that limiting local suits would encourage more pollution that jeopardizes public health. But backers of the legislation say that curbing civil penalties assessed on top of those doled out by state regulators would bolster economic certainty for companies and allow them to focus resources on cleaning up their messes.
Updated: May 29, 2015
The Texas Emissions Reduction Plan is a landmark air quality initiative created by the Legislature over a decade ago. The idea was to take a portion of motorists' fees and use the money to reduce harmful air emissions from vehicles and equipment through funding repairs or replacements.
Almost $1 billion has been used for that purpose, but hundreds of millions of more dollars have been stockpiled in recent years to artificially balance the state's budget. A similar program for low-income vehicle owners has faced the same fate.
Lawmakers have been divided over what to do about these programs. Some have called for an end to the stockpiling, pointing out Texas needs to keep reducing emissions, especially in light of a potentially stricter ozone standard. Others want to just end the programs altogether and use the extra money for things like roads.
Addressing the emissions reduction plan was considered priority legislation in the House. A measure there would push back the expiration date for the plan, while a Senate proposal would tap funds from the plan to help government agencies overhaul their natural gas vehicle fleets. But legislation faltered at the end of the session as conference committees were unable to settle differences.
Updated: June 10, 2015
The Texas Legislative Guide was designed and developed by Becca Aaronson, Emily Albracht, Daniel Craigmile, Annie Daniel, Ben Hasson and Ryan Murphy for The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that promotes civic engagement and discourse on public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern.