Senate Candidates Struggle to Make Waves on Water Issues

In the race to represent SD 24, Republican candidates Susan King and Dawn Buckingham face a difficult balancing act on water conservation and pricing.

Dawn Buckingham
Dawn Buckingham campaign
Dawn Buckingham

In the fight to represent the sprawling Senate District 24, winning over voters on water issues is paramount: The district, which runs from Abilene to Bandera, has a large farming and ranching population, and folks there were hit hard by the drought in 2014.

But voters and poll-watchers who spoke to the Observer say neither of the two front-runners competing to represent SD 24 in the 2017 Lege session have so far seemed to inspire much confidence among constituents keen on ensuring that future water policies serve their interests.

At a water forum in January, Susan King — a state representative from Abilene — acknowledged that she “didn’t know all the ins and outs of [agriculture].” Her opponent, Austin ophthalmologist Dawn Buckingham, initially supported contradictory policies that would both restrict farmers’ water use and allocate more water for irrigation.

The two Republicans face a difficult balancing act. Part of the district includes the exurbs of San Antonio and Austin, which means Buckingham and King must work not to alienate suburban voters while simultaneously addressing the needs of rural ranchers and farmers and appeasing lakefront communities in the Hill Country.

“[Water] impacts fracking, agriculture and ranching operations,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant and vice chairman of the Travis County Republican Party. “In a district like that, with so much rural territory, anything water related is controversial.”

The seat is currently held by veteran lawmaker Senator Troy Fraser, who is stepping down after 19 years and has been a strong advocate for suburban water users. Buckingham appears to be hoping her outsider status plays well with voters, while King is a five-term state representative and chair of the House Committee on Defense and Veteran Affairs. King briefly suspended her campaign last year to receive treatment for depression, but both candidates have been making numerous public appearances in advance of the runoff vote May 24.

Neither campaign made their candidates available to the Observer for interviews for this piece.

Susan King
Susan King campaign
Susan King

King and Buckingham took 27 and 25 percent of the March Republican primary vote, respectively, with King securing 2,959 more votes than her opponent. The winner of the May 24 runoff will face Democrat Virginia “Jennie Lou” Leeder in the general election. If Leeder were to win the general, she’d be the district’s first Democratic senator since 1994. Leeder’s long odds make the runoff most likely to settle who’ll be representing SD 24 in the Capitol come January.

Both King and Buckingham have stumbled trying to figure out where they stand on water rights and conservation issues, and in particular on how to manage the water supply from the Highland Lakes, a chain of six reservoirs along the Colorado River.

The lakes, which are controlled by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), are primarily a source of drinking water for Austin and also provide irrigation to rice farmers downstream. But the LCRA prices water differently for municipal and agricultural users. Farmers pay a fraction of what municipal users pay for water, which urban and suburban dwellers say promotes inefficient irrigation systems and waste. Both the farmers and Highland Lakes residents also fear that legislators and utilities from urban areas, particularly those in San Antonio and Austin, will attempt to either purchase or transfer groundwater rights in rural areas to cities.

At a January water forum organized by the Central Texas Water Coalition, King said she couldn’t make a definitive statement on whether she prioritizes agricultural, residential or industrial uses of water.

“We as a region of small towns, medium towns, agriculture, recreation, tourism etcetera, we have so many different interests in this district, it’s hard to decide what the fair price is,” King said. “I would suspect there are people looking at this.”

Buckingham, who has emphasized her small-town roots and rural outlook, came out in favor of prioritizing irrigation over recreational use, but only after making statements that seemed to contradict that position.

“The lakes also were meant for irrigation,” Buckingham told attendees. “I don’t know they were so much meant for boats running around.”

Both candidates’ statements show their lack of experience, said Tedder, whose group works to conserve Highland Lakes water. “Neither one seemed to have a solid understanding of the complexity of water issues,” she said.

Tedder said Buckingham’s comment showed she didn’t realize that recreational use of the Highland Lakes supports a large boating, fishing, camping and tourism industry. “It’s not grandpa in a canoe,” Tedder said.

Buckingham’s inexperience on water policy has landed her in trouble with at least one key demographic: farmers. At the forum, she told attendees that water should be priced such that it “incentivizes farmers and ranchers to conserve.”

Those comments put Buckingham in a difficult situation with the Texas Farm Bureau (TFB), which took her statements to mean that she supported increasing water rates for farmers. When the group raised questions about her statements, Buckingham sent them clips of other responses she’d made at the forum that were favorable to farmers and told the TFB at an endorsement meeting that her comments were taken out of context.  

It worked. The 300,000-member TFB has since endorsed Buckingham. Billy Howe, TFB’s associate government affairs director, told the Observer that at the group’s endorsement meeting, he’d felt Buckingham “understood the rural way of life.”

But to the King campaign, Buckingham is a flip-flopper whose policy views can’t be trusted. Bryan Eppstein, King’s campaign manager, said that Buckingham “talks about raising the price for farmers and then before the farmers she says, ‘Oh no, I didn’t.’” Eppstein emphasized his candidate’s experience in the House, where she voted for a 2013 infrastructure bill to fund water projects.

In contrast, Buckingham appears to be hoping King’s legislative experience works against her with rural voters who are weary of career politicians.

At a Republican women’s club luncheon in Brownwood, Buckingham told attendees that she is a “redneck that cleans up well” and that if they “want to hunt, burn something or go mudding in your truck, man, I am your girl.”

Mackowiak expects that the strategy will play well in the district. “King is much more establishment Republican,” he said. “For grassroots conservatives, she hasn’t been with them on fights.”

Buckingham has also been quick to attack the federal government, which she has said over-regulates her medical practice, keeping her busy with bureaucracy and away from hunting and fishing with her children on the family ranch. Buckingham also told Brownwood luncheon attendees that the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempts to clarify which bodies of water are under its jurisdiction is an attempt to regulate “puddles” in their backyards.

Buckingham also frequently highlights her high-profile endorsements — from former Governor Rick Perry, former land commissioner Jerry Patterson and former comptroller Susan Combs — as proof that she’s a true conservative.

Frank Niemec, a firearm instructor and Buckingham supporter who attended the Brownwood luncheon, told the Observer that voting for Susan King would be a vote for the status quo.

“[King has] been in that too long,” he said. “She didn’t address any issue directly and skirted around them. I don’t know if she knows what she stands for.”

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 9:30 am CST