Page 26


anship of Parks and Wildlife. By December 2000, the TNRCC deemed the application complete and gave it a priority number. Unless the TNRCC rejects the permit, all applications after that date are now junior to SMRF’s. Todd Chenoweth, section manager for Water Rights Permitting and Availability at the TNRCC, remembers the day the SMRF application arrived. at his office. Although the TNRCC had processed permits for applicants who wanted to keep water in a river or creek, those permits were a few hundred acre-feet at most. Here was a group that wanted billions of gallons! Attaching a monetary value to the SMRF request is difficult. Still, to give a sense of how valuable water can get in Texas, according to the Texas Center for Policy Studies, in El Paso, available water rights can sell for as much as $750 per acre foot. SMRF was asking for 1.15 million acre feet. “I don’t know how I can recreate that magic moment,” Chenoweth says from his office. “It was certainly shocking. It had not occurred to me that such an application was possible, yet I could sit there and see where all of the pieces were in place for [it], so I was also surprised that no one had connected those dots before.” One group was particularly surprised by the SMRF action, authorities in Texas are quasi-state nonprofit agencies generally formed along watershed boundaries.The authorities supply and treat water, provide flood control, hydroelectric facilities, and even sometimes sewage treatment. While river authorities cannot charge for water as a commodity, they do levy fees on their water customers based on the costs of construction and services like dams, pipelines, and treatment. Most authorities such as the GBRA cannot tax residents, but they all can issue revenue bonds. In Central Texas, where there is still some water available to slake the needs of a rapidly growing population, river authorities are literally the spigot for development. For example, in the ongoing growth wars west of Austin, the Lower Colorado River Authority has consistently come to the aid of developers fighting the city of Austin, providing both water and electricity to sprawling suburbs. Environmentalists criticize the river authorities for catering primarily to engineering contractors, consultants, and developers. They assert that these “water developers” tend to emphasize huge infrastructure projectslike damsinstead of more efficient uses of water. The river authorities counter that since they are nonprofits and don’t sell the actual water, they are well positioned to balance all competing interests among user groups. The GBRA, which was founded in the 1930s, covers the Central Texas watershed of the Guadalupe and Blanco Rivers. As Bill West, GBRA general manager explains it, his river authority had big plans for the same water SMRF wants.West sits in a conference room in the GBRA’s headquarters, a squat 1960s building in Seguin located down the street from a con crete statue of the world’s largest pecan. He’s a tall man who has been in the water business for decades. Spread out before him are the charts and graphs he uses to make presentations. “It was a very bold move by a relatively small group of peo ple,” he says of the SMRF application. “It is something that I continued on page 16 80,000 70,000 60,000 E 50,000 40,000 30,000 20,000 10,000 Historical vs. Future Guadalupe Estuary Inflows During Repeat of Critical Drought Year 1954 ., ‘ TPW0 and MOB calculated historical 1954 flow TNRCC predictionfuture with all existing water rights and I Ilaw. JAN FEB MAR APR MAY JUN JUL AUG SEP OCT NOV DEC Courtesy of the National Wildlife Federation 6/21/02 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7