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June 27, 2000     (512) 463-0300
Photo: Senator J.E. Buster Brown questions a witness; also pictured (L) Vice-Chair Kenneth Armbrister and (R) Carol McGarah, Committee Director
Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown, Chair, questions a witness during Tuesday's hearing; also pictured (L) Vice-Chair Kenneth Armbrister and (R) Carol McGarah, Committee Director.

Senate Natural Resources Committee Examines Texas River Authorities

AUSTIN - The Senate Natural Resources Committee held a public hearing today, June 27, 2000, at the State Capitol. The committee has been holding meetings around the state to hear opinions and concerns about the charges assigned by Lt. Governor Rick Perry to be studied during this interim.

Today's meeting focused on charge 3. This charge orders the committee to review the missions and roles of all Texas River Authorities, including their powers and duties, financing, fee structures, service areas, board composition, relationships with other river authorities, competition with private sector service providers, communities they serve, and roles in and contributions to the state's water plan.

The hearing began with an overview of the 1986 Water District and River Authority Study Committee. Testimony was given by Tom Bohl, former Counsel to the Study Committee. Created by Senate Bill 249 of the 69th Legislature, this committee met around the state to study financial accountability and ethical standards of river authorities, and whether the state should get more involved. Among other things, the study approved the current selection method of board members, who are elected or appointed depending on the district. The study also found a lack of coordination and communication between state policy and individual projects. More public education about water conservation was recommended. The study committee, as well as everyone in today's meeting, agreed that water is a top priority for the state.

The committee then heard testimony about the missions and roles of Texas River Authorities. Those testifying were Joe Beal, General Manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA); Jerry Clark, General Manager of the Sabine River Authority (SRA); and Gary Gwen, General Manager of the Brazos River Authority (BRA).

The LCRA has a board of 15 members appointed by the governor and confirmed by the legislators. Created by the Texas Legislature in 1934, the organization provides community services, and is in charge of water resources management, electric generation and transmission, and flood management. The authority does not collect taxes or receive state appropriations; it is funded by the sales of electricity, water, and other services, such as learning centers and recreational parks. The LCRA has 1,690 employees and an annual budget of $498 million.

The longest river that starts and ends in Texas, the Colorado, has suffered four major floods since 1976. Since Texas is becoming more urbanized, more and more people are affected by the floods. Water conservation is another big concern and the LCRA has implemented a program targeted at irrigated agriculture and municipal water, which together account for more than 90 percent of total water use. The organization is also working on developing additional water resources like artificial reservoirs, improving water quality, and increasing economic development. Answering a question of Senator Barrientos based on past complaints, Joe Beal said they are also working on improving deficiencies in the ethnic diversity of its personnel.

David Lewis Steed, President of Travis County Water Control and Improvement District N. 17, testified against the river authorities entering into retail water and wastewater service. This would create "predatory practices and unfair pricing leveraged against existing water purveyors," he said. He added that LCRA owns all the water, can sell itself electricity at below cost and its pricing is unregulated

The Sabine River Authority, represented by Jerry Clark, has 20 years of existence and works together with the Louisiana Authority, a state that shares the Sabine River with Texas. The river's origin northeast of Dallas and flows through 21 Texas counties. The authority, which does not receive state appropriations or income from taxes, has been subjected to lawsuits from people affected by flooding.

The Brazos River Authority, created by the Legislature in 1929, serves 65 counties and has more than 1,5 million Texans living within its watershed. The Brazos River is the longest that flows through Texas, having its origin in New Mexico. The authority is governed by a 21-member board of directors appointed by the governor and, like the other organizations, is funded by the customers it serves. It has 13 reservoirs, supplying water to municipal, industrial and agricultural projects at a rate of $23.50 per acre-foot. Although minimum, it is the only river authority that generates hydroelectric power. Among its projects, there is the development of wetlands, reforestation, and water quality monitoring. The organization already manages water treatment projects with dairy and poultry facilities. Occupying one of the most rapidly growing areas, the demand is higher than the water resources available. Gary Gwyn, the river authority's general manager, says they have an urgent need of new resources.

Additional testimony about the opportunities and challenges facing Texas River Authorities was provided by Greg Rothe, General Manager of the San Antonio River Authority; John Grant, General Manager of the Colorado River Municipal Water District; Jim Oliver, General Manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District; Bill West, General Manager of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority; Sam Jones, Utilities and Districts Manager of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission - Technical Resources; and Tommy Knowles of the Texas Water Development Board - Technical Resources.

The San Antonio, Tarrant, and Guadalupe-Blanco River Authorities have boards of directors elected by the voters in their districts. Their representatives said this system attracts interested and committed people, working better than the appointed members system. The representatives agreed on the importance of public education relative to water conservation. Another point of agreement was the need for more funds, including the possibility of obtaining federal money for infrastructure projects.

The representatives also discussed the issue of aquatic vegetation, especially exotic varieties that cover extended areas of several lakes and reservoirs. The use of pesticides to combat these rapid growing plants is adamantly opposed by environmentalgroups. Other people, like those who practice acquatic sports, support the use.

Committee members include Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson serving as chair, Senator Kenneth Armbrister of Victoria serving as vice-chair, and Senators Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Tom Haywood of Wichita Falls, Eddie Lucio, Jr. of Brownsville and Bill Ratliff of Mount Pleasant; Senator David Bernsen joined today's hearing.

There was no public testimony in today's meeting. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.

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