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Hays County shoots down plan for regional water group

The Hays County Commissioners Court on Tuesday defeated a proposal to establish the Central Texas Water Development Corp., a governmental entity that would have attempted to recruit regional actors in the hopes of building a water pipeline to growing counties.

After the 3-2 vote, County Judge Bert Cobb, who championed the measure, said he didn’t see the defeat coming and that he was “disappointed” in the court.

“Politics is a contact sport,” he said. “Nobody has any solutions. They only have negativity.”

Cobb singled out Commissioner Will Conley, who gave a speech criticizing the plan before the vote. Conley said the task of developing water sources could be accomplished by an existing entity that has credibility in the Legislature and that the proposal lacked important details, such as where its initial funding would come from.

“I think it’s quite a fantasy to think you can create an organization within the next two months and that you can walk into the Legislature with any sense of credibility,” Conley said.

To Cobb’s criticism, Conley said he understands the judge is “passionate” about the issue of water security.

“I think when he takes a deep breath and calms down, he’ll realize that we’re not opposed to his goal,” he said. “We just want to be smart and strategic.”

Commissioners Debbie Gonzales Ingalsbe and Mark Jones also voted no, saying they didn’t have enough information about the proposal. Cobb said he hasn’t decided whether he would try to raise the issue again anytime soon.

Travis County and Leander were expected to join the initial board of the water development corporation. Following the Hays decision, the Travis County commissioners tabled the measure Tuesday, and the Leander City Council is expected to do the same Thursday.

The original goal for the corporation was to bring together counties and cities across the region to build a public pipeline carrying water from sparsely populated areas with ample supplies, said Pix Howell, a consultant who helped create the proposal. But the group failed to recruit the water-rich jurisdictions — such as Bastrop, Lee and Burleson counties — and the goal shifted to starting a conversation on Central Texas’ water needs, educating potential members about water opportunities and lobbying the Legislature.

“What became apparent is everybody had a completely different idea of what was necessary,” said Howell, who received a $25,000 retainer from the county to develop the plan. “If you could identify how you put a regional system together, something that’s controlled by the public but can have lots of private investment, at least then there’s an honest broker.”

Lee County Judge Paul Fischer said Tuesday that he “did not feel comfortable” with the proposed organization because he fears building a pipeline could result in overpumping as such counties as Hays, Travis and Williamson continue to grow and deplete their own water sources.

“We don’t mind sharing water, but we need to do it slowly,” Fischer said. “We could have 15 straws down there bringing the water up and shipping it out.”

The Hays commissioners this year voted to buy water rights in Lee and Bastrop counties from the Austin firm Forestar, but so far there is no way to get that water to Hays County. Conley was the lone dissenting vote on that deal.

Tuesday’s defeat in Hays County comes two weeks after the San Antonio City Council approved a $3.4 billion private pipeline to carry water from Burleson County. Cobb said Monday that Hays County might approach the San Antonio Water System about attaching to its pipeline, which goes through Hays County, to bring in the Forestar water.

“We don’t have to have a whole lot of gas; we can ride horses. But we’ve got to have water,” Cobb said in court Tuesday. “We have to provide certain things.”

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