The key organizer of Worried About Water in Erath and Comanche counties contends her group has uncovered “some interesting and disturbing facts” after reviewing members of the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District’s water well applications.
“These facts lead one to believe there indeed may be questionable motives with regard to the rules and actions of this district,” Elaine Smith said. “Remember the district mission is ‘to conserve, preserve, and protect’ the groundwater of this area, yet some people feel some of the directors are putting their own personal interests above those of the citizens who elected them.”
The MTGCD consists of six members, including three elected members from Erath County (Boyd Waggoner, Jerry Hinshaw and Fred Parker) as well as three from Comanche County (Rodney Stephens, George Bingham and Jerry Fronterhouse).
According to Smith, Comanche County directors on the MTGCD have “control of” 108 wells, including 76 for Stephens, 25 for Bingham, and seven for Fronterhouse. Meanwhile Erath County directors have a total of 17 wells, including six for Parker, one for Hinshaw and 10 for Waggoner, Smith said.
“It has also been confirmed that F & F, Director Fronterhouse’s well drilling company, drilled 37 of Director Stephens’ wells,” Smith said.
Smith said the rest of Stephens’ well registrations did not list the driller, while none of Bingham’s wells listed a drilling company. All of Fronterhouse’s wells were drilled by F & F, Smith said, adding that most of the wells controlled by Erath County MTGCD directors did not list the drilling company, either.
“All of these are ‘grandfather’ wells, meaning there are no limits, no restrictions, nothing to prevent over pumping,” Smith said. “Further, it appears at least two of the Comanche County directors have a customer/client relationship, which could cause their motives to be suspect. Also, two of the three board members from Comanche County were in office when the district rules were made.”
Speaking on behalf of the MTGCD and its members, MTGCD General Manager Joe Cooper said Smith has “some of her facts wrong or is attempting to misconstrue them to give purpose to her organization.”
“It should be reasonably clear why directors, who are farmers and ranchers representing a county with an agricultural economy (Comanche County), would have more water wells than those directors from Erath County, who are retired or have professional careers,” Cooper said. “It is analogous to automobile mechanics having more wrenches than seamstresses.”
In addition, Cooper said, who drills a well does not impact whether or not the well is legal with regard to district rules or the rules of the Texas Department of License and Regulation.
“And a customer/client relationship has no impact on whether a well complies with regulations,” Cooper said.
Also, Cooper said, the MTGCD’s Well Registration Forms ask for the name of the driller of a well if the information is known.
“Unless the current land owner had the well drilled, it is likely they do not know who drilled the well,” Cooper said. “This is not a problem.”
Plus, Cooper said, “It is understandable that a part owner in a drilling company would drill his own wells.”
In addition, Cooper said:
“Grandfathered” wells are a result of district rules not being retroactive upon adoption.
“Well owners,” he said, “were allowed to use their wells as they always had, prior to the creation of the district. However, new wells must follow district rules. Additionally, if a grandfathered well is altered to allow it to pump more water, the modified well is subject to permitting under the district rules.”
MTGCD directors are not defending, or even defensive, about the district rules.
“The directors did not write the district rules,” Cooper said. “The MTGCD Rules were assembled by a Rules Committee, composed of citizens from Comanche and Erath Counties.
“This was purposely done to assure that the directors could not define arbitrary rules. The Rules Committee used Texas Water Law as the guideline for establishing rules. It is true that the directors have not seen fit to alter the district rules because there is no scientific evidence that indicate need for change.
“The directors have engaged the assistance of professional hydrologists to determine if there is any reason to modify the district rules.”
But Smith remains unconvinced.
“Could this explain why they seem to have set up and are defending rules that do not actually conserve or preserve our groundwater? Perhaps this is why Director Stephens took control (as chairman) of the board when serious questions were raised regarding the rules?” Smith said.
It appears, Smith said, “these elected officials have put their own personal interests ahead of those of the citizens of the district.”
“The Comanche County directors always seem to vote together,” Smith said.
At the same time, Smith said, Erath County Director Hinshaw has voted with “the three from Comanche County occasionally, Director Parker has demonstrated a commendable neutral attitude, and Director Waggoner has been outspoken in his opinion that the rules of the district are inadequate.”
However, according to Cooper, Stephens did not “take control of the board.”
“He was placed in control” when he was elected chairman by fellow board members, Cooper said.
Smith said MTGCD board members and management have not “demonstrated an effective attitude toward their mission of conserving and preserving the groundwater of the District.”
“They have not responded to our questions or suggestions given in the board meetings,” Smith said. “They do not offer to lobby for the legislative changes that would be needed to give the district more power. They do not have recent monitoring statistics of the levels in our aquifer, yet the district has been in existence for four years.”
To the South, Smith said, waters levels have dropped significantly over the past 20 years, per the electronic monitoring in Coryell County, and the “serious water problems in the Hill Country are well documented.”
To the North, Parker County, among others, are “experiencing devastating effects of over pumping of their water resources for personal and oil and gas usage,” Smith said. “It would be foolish of us to believe what we are told: that we have ‘plenty’ of water without recent definitive statistics. And those do not exist.”
“So it appears this district is not fulfilling its mission,” Smith said. “Sure, it is abiding by the current laws and rules, but it makes no effort to improve upon those laws and rules. The majority of the directors are not representing the citizens of their counties.
“They seem to be following some private agenda, ignoring the ethics and purpose mandatory in an elected official. If they don’t have rules strong enough to protect the water resources of the district, don’t do anything to change that, and private citizens have to try to get those changes, we have to ask of the MTGCD: ‘What do we need you for?’”
Cooper, on the other hand, believes Smith is flat out wrong.
“If Mrs. Smith does not believe that our rules allow us to conserve and protect our groundwater, she needs to focus her efforts on having Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code changed at the State Legislature,” Cooper said. “The MTGCD and other GCDs (groundwater conservation districts) must stay within the confines of this law.
“If the law is not strong enough to suit her, she needs to focus her energy at the appropriate level of government. GCDs are designed to implement the laws of the state, not change them.”
Furthermore, Cooper said, the MTGCD has been “very responsive” to Smith’s questions, answering “countless emails and printing copies of numerous records, often to the detriment of accomplishing what we really need to be focusing on.”
“It is totally untrue that the MTGCD does not have current information on the status of water levels in our aquifer,” Cooper said. “As a matter of fact, at two board meetings within the last several months, the results of annual monitoring of 15 wells in Erath County and 23 in Comanche County were covered. Two weeks ago, the district completed water level monitoring that continues to show no decline in the aquifer.”
Cooper said he cannot comment on the situation in Coryell County, but he acknowledged the situation in Parker County “is serious.”
“The problem there, as defined by the Texas Water Development Board, is due to overdevelopment, not the oil and gas industry,” Cooper said.
As Smith states, Cooper said, the MTGCD is “abiding by the current laws and rules.
“I contend, therefore, that it is fulfilling its mission as prescribed under the laws of our great state,” Cooper said.
“Mrs. Smith alludes to the ignoring of ethics and lack of purpose on the part of the directors,” Cooper said. “She suggests there are private agendas, but defines none. These are serious accusations, and I ask that she provide evidence to support such slanderous statements or refrain from doing so.”
DOUG MYERS is Managing Editor of the Empire-Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 965-3124, ext. 229.