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County puts water on the table

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Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 11:09 am

Water, or at least a lack of it, poses a potential barrier to future growth in Williamson County, according to some commissioners who are considering what the court’s role should be in addressing the issue.

Discussion Tuesday in Georgetown encompassed whether the county should seek and reserve water sources, or help facilitate and connect sources into a countywide grid, or both.

On the table was a proposed engagement letter with a law firm to represent and advise the county on matters related to water rights, supplies and associated regulatory issues.

“The emphasis here is on what legal rights we have,” County Judge Dan Gattis said. “We have no statutory [obligation] to do anything with water. The big question I have in my mind is what authorities do we have and what can we do, if anything, to assist the other entities that are involved in water.”

Gattis told the court he felt the county would need legal counsel and proposed a letter from the Austin-based Smith-Robertson law firm to secure their services.

“There’s quite a few things that can happen very quickly if we had the authority or wanted to do those things to create more of a grid in the county where water could be transferred from one entity to another,” Gattis said. “There are lots of possibilities.... Without water this county will not continue to grow and prosper as we do.”

A subcommittee was appointed with commissioners Valerie Covey (Precinct 3) and Ron Morrison (Precinct 4) looking further into what role the county might play in reserving water and/or facilitating infrastructure development between cities, water districts, etc.

Covey said she had met recently with Hays County officials who were looking at options for securing water and building infrastructure.

While some communities/districts in the county have enough water for the time being, she said, others are going to need more. The cities of Cedar Park, Leander and Round Rock recently formed a water district that will take the resource from Lake Travis.

“I know it’s not the same need throughout the county, but it is a need for the county,” Covey said. “It’s something we have to look at because really if we don’t have water resolved, the other things we discuss here are low down the pole.”

For example, she said, Lake Georgetown is the major source of water for Georgetown, but new developments coming on board could drain that resource quickly.

“Georgetown tells me they have water for a long time,” Covey said. “However if they take in a [neighborhood] the size of Chisholm, or any portion of it, they will need more water. The problem is there’s just a limited source out there above ground.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman, who served on the county’s Water Visionary Committee beginning in 2006, said that committee brought water providers and landowners together to address water issues and determine if the county needed to take action. The final determination at that time, she said, was that water districts and cities were in a better position to reserve and distribute water because they were able to garner funds from water rates.

Birkman said if the county moved forward to investigate water issues again, she wanted to avoid any redundancy with other entities involved in water planning.

“I agree with you that water is really important, but we, the county, don’t really have to do that,” Birkman said. “That’s an optional thing for us to get involved in water planning. There are already quite a few groups that do it. I’m not saying that we don’t want to, but we don’t have to.”

Birkman also said she would like to see the scope of work more defined before a firm is engaged.

Legal counsel, Gattis said, would allow the county to research what other counties were doing and, according to the letter, a law firm would “...represent the county in connection with long-range water supply issues and associated regulatory matters.”

Commissioner Ron Morrison said, while no one wants to have government growth, the county must look at water issues from a regional standpoint, and that he considered it to be an obligation to his constituency.

“If we don’t take care of the needs for this county, and regionally ...we’re going to be held hostage more than we are by the oil companies,” Morrison said. “It’s something that I think we have to take a hard look at ... it is the biggest problem this county will face in the future.”

The court’s appointed subcommittee will develop a scope of work and determine if and what type of legal services might be required, Gattis said.

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