Is the Texas legislature planning to strip the power of Texas cities to regulate water quality? Based on this article in the San Antonio Express-News over the weekend, it looks like this may be the situation:
Advocates for the Edwards Aquifer, already stunned by the pace of development over the recharge zone, are incensed by bills making their way through the Texas Legislature that would gut the protections that do exist.
Even a representative for local developers who helped craft the compromises at the heart of the current protective city ordinances said common sense should lead people to oppose most of the proposed bills.
Observers say passage of the bills would undo years of efforts by those in San Antonio to pass ordinances striking a balance between development and preservation, to limit the density and types of construction over the area where rainfall and streamflows refill the aquifer.
State Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, who tried two years ago to yank water quality powers from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, is the author of most of the developer-friendly bills.
Armbrister's Senate Bill 1363 says cities don't have the authority of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to regulate water quality and that a city can enforce water quality rules adopted prior to passage of this bill only to the extent that they agree with the standards and practices of the state commission.
That effectively would gut the aquifer protection measures approved by the San Antonio City Council in early 1995 and by Austin voters in 1992, said Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin.
Another Armbrister bill, SB 1362, would strip away a city's ability to regulate within its extraterritorial jurisdiction the density or number of buildings or lots and the percentage of land covered by concrete, buildings and other nonporous surfaces. The bill specifically removes an exemption that covers the Edwards recharge zone outside San Antonio.
The Legislature is on a five-day Easter holiday and Armbrister couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Rockwell said the Armbrister bills appear to target cities that sit above the Edwards Aquifer and have taken steps to protect their drinking water source — San Antonio, Austin, San Marcos, Buda, Dripping Springs, Lakeway, Sunset Valley and others.
"We've got a huge amount of consensus that these kinds of water quality regulations are crucial," Rockwell said. "To me, it's a fairly easy question, what's more important — protecting an irreplaceable water supply from contamination or allowing huge profits and high intensity development on the part of a handful of developers?"
First question: why the hell is a Democrat pushing these bills in a Republican-dominated legislature, doing the GOP's dirty work for them?
Prior to this article, last week, the Express-News published a commentary, by Richard Alles of Aquifer Guardians in Urban Areas and the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, warning of this attempt by some legislators to usurp the already limited power of Texas cities to regulate their own water quality and growth:
Sitting atop the Edwards Aquifer, one of the most precious and vulnerable water resources in the world, Central Texas cities have enacted rules that prevent contamination by inappropriate development. Some of these standards are hailed as the best in the country for balancing the needs of a growing community while preserving water supplies for future generations.
The problem is that no one has to comply because of state "vested rights" or "grandfathering" laws.
Not content that local water protection ordinances have applied to almost no development, state legislators seem determined to make sure no scratch of dirt or development fantasy remains without vested rights. Witness a profusion of bills that would radically expand what are already among the most developer-biased grandfathering laws in the nation.
Senate Bill 848, co-authored by Sen. Frank Madla, D-San Antonio, would allow developers to grandfather a project simply by dropping an incomplete application into a mailbox. Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, has introduced SB 574, targeting tree preservation and park dedication ordinances. In addition, the legislation would exempt developers from impact fee increases and resurrect projects for which local permits have expired.
If you liked Pulte Homes' Encino Ridge clear-cut over the aquifer recharge zone, you will love these bills.
Developers claim the laws are needed to protect investments and prevent unfair rule changes while they are in the middle of a project. In reality, Texas has a law routinely exploited by landowners who have made no substantive investment in a project.
A San Antonio developer is suing the city claiming to be grandfathered back to 1927. Even though he hasn't turned a shovel of dirt in nearly 80 years, he claims to be exempt from all rules adopted in that time, including our stormwater drainage ordinance, which prevents him from flooding other peoples' property. Ironically, the same developer is suing the city over upstream development that is flooding his property.
I have little clue what the prospects for these bills are, but given the GOP's dominance in the legislature, and that party's known affection for doing the bidding of large campaign contributors such as real estate developers, we should be extremely worried about these passing and act accordingly. Frank Madla, a Democrat mentioned as a co-author of one of these atrocious bills, and my state Senator, will be hearing from me, and hopefully from many others.