Citizens get involved in Texas water sales decision

11:09 PM, Dec. 20, 2011 | Written by
Vickie Welborn Shreveport Times

http://www.shreveporttimes.com/article/20111221/NEWS01/112210329/Citizes-get-involved-Texas-water-sales-decision?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE%7Cs

TOLEDO BEND — The unrelenting push of a citizens group — made up of mostly retirees calling the shores of Toledo Bend Reservoir their new home — played a pivotal role seven years ago in ultimately creating a new state law that sets a minimum lake level.

With that battle won, the Toledo Bend Citizens Advisory Committee continued for several more years to keep a close eye on the Sabine River Authority, the reservoir's governing body. And as Toledo Bend's level somewhat stabilized, so did the SRA's operations, thus TBCAC's involvement waned.

But a drought and proposed water sales to Texas has combined to re-energize the TBCAC, which organized a community meeting Tuesday night to discuss concerns about the water sales contract. The plan was to get as much information to the public as possible so that those who want to can ask questions or make informed
comments to the SRA Board of Commissioners.

The SRA set a Jan. 6 deadline for accepting comments in preparation for its Jan. 26 meeting where the contract with TB Partners will be formally considered. A vote scheduled this month was postponed to allow more public involvement.

Since then, the SRA has finalized plans for a special meeting Jan. 12 to serve as a public hearing of sorts where the SRA board will listen to concerns and address them, Executive Director Jim Pratt said. The governor's signature is required before any water can be sold to Texas.

TBCAC is not opposed to water sales. "We just have concerns about this particular contract," secretary-treasurer John Toliver said.

The main worries center on the length of the contract and its overall effect to Louisiana residents, Toliver said.

TB Partners wants a commitment of 600,000 acre-feet of water annually for its Texas customers. It will pay a $4 million up-front payment by July 1, plus an escalating reservation fee for the first 10 years that could generate more than $40 million.

And the price of water was set at 28 cents per 1,000 gallons, an increase over the current rate or 15 cents per 1,000 gallons, that could result in annual income of $54 million, in addition to millions more in compensation tied to overall performance of the project.

The contract would commit water "that belongs to the people of Louisiana for at least 99 years," said Toliver, a retired federal employee. "And if we need it later, it won't be available. It allows them to pump water regardless of what the level is. I know you can't shut the valve off, but in my mind, there are other potential options. On a major contract like this, the public needs to know more about it."

SRA Commissioner Larry Kelly, who heads the Water Sales Committee that voted Nov.30 in favor of the contract, welcomes and encourages resident input. Before his appointment to the board, Kelly was one of the longtime, ring-leaders for the lake level law.

His only regret is that few residents have attended board and committee meetings in recent years in which the desire to move away from hydroelectric power generation to water sales has been discussed openly. No residents opposed the plan in August when the SRA originally voted for the TB Partners' contract.

"Maybe some of them didn't pay attention and now want to blame the SRA for not keeping them informed," Kelly said. "But we've done all that we could. There's been articles in the newspapers, and we've answered all of the questions citizens have had. We're glad to answer any other question because we want to be able to
calm their fears."

The TBCAC has retained legal counsel independent of the area to view the TB Partners' contract for its legality and legal impact, Toliver said. TBCAC member Ted Dove is heading up that aspect of the effort, and Toliver hopes they have an analysis in hand before the SRA meeting next month.

Because of the interruption of the holidays, Toliver would like for the SRA to extend its comment period. He thinks the long-lasting effect to the state is too important to rush a decision.

"There's nothing in that contract that's detrimental, in my opinion, to the state of Louisiana or the citizens. We're certainly going to have more water available according to historical data than today; that
is without the drought," Kelly said.

Toliver said he believes more people would be acceptable to the contract if the SRA sews up some of the concerns.

For example, if the SRA is going to involve its counterparts in Texas to split the water allotment then it should be written into the contract.

Also, if the SRA is going to stop hydroelectric power generation in lieu of water sales, then a commitment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission should be included, he said.

Bottom line, Toliver said he wants to make sure the public has an adequate say in the future of its resource. And he emphasizes he's not among those who are calling for a removal of the SRA board.

"That's not a way to resolve it at all. We have concerns (the contract) commits Louisiana citizens in effect in perpetuity. We fully recognize in times of drought people need water to drink," Tolver said. "We fought the battle and won the 168 level, so we don't want to lose the war by taking (the reservoir) down below that."

For more information
Copies of the water sales contract with TB Partners and public comment forms are available on the Sabine River Authority's Website, www.srala-toledo.com . The deadline for submission of comment forms is Jan. 6.

(dl)