|WESLACO, April 29 - The Rio Grande Valley Water District Manager's Association has voted unanimously to fight a bill aimed at abolishing one of its member districts.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, wants the City of McAllen to take over the assets and liabilities of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No.3. Hinojosa’s legislation, Senate Bill 1890, would broaden the number of voters who could vote to dissolve HCWID No. 3.
“We do not like this bill at all. We are concerned about it setting a bad precedent and that other cities will go after other water districts,” said Tito Nieto, general manager of Cameron County Irrigation District No. 6, which is based in Los Fresnos.
“In our view, irrigation districts in the Rio Grande Valley are the best stewards of the water and of public funds. We are very efficient in what we do. We have been here a long time and we want to continue serving the public as we have been. We have been serving our customers well.”
HCWID No. 3 was criticized in a state audit last year. Asked what he thought of the running of the district, Nieto said: “They have built a reservoir. They have built a new pump station. They have done an excellent job.”
Hinojosa takes a different view to Nieto. “Water District No. 3 is a waste of money and another layer of government bureaucracy. It has the highest rates of any water district in the Rio Grande Valley and services only a handful of landowners. Although once useful, it has far outlived its purpose for which it was intended nearly 100 years ago,” Hinojosa said, in a news release issued in early March that announced his legislation.
Rusty McDaniels is general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 1. It covers 14,000 acres in McAllen but does not, at the present time, sell water to the City of McAllen. McDaniels made similar comments to Nieto.
“If they dissolve Water District No. 3 it could happen to any one of us, eventually. On the next bill the politicians would change the percentage slightly so that some other city could take over another irrigation district just because they want to benefit from the water rights that district holds and also the property that district holds. I do not see any benefit in dissolving a water district that has been doing a good job for 90 years,” McDaniels said.
A committee substitute to SB 1890 was passed out of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations on a 5-0 vote last week and now heads to the full Senate. During a hearing on the bill, Hinojosa said he would tweak the language so that it meets with Gov. Rick Perry’s approval. Last session, Perry vetoed a similar bill from Hinojosa.
“We have a situation here, quite frankly, where a local water district that has outlived its usefulness. They only have nine or ten farmers that they still service and 95 to 96 percent of the water for this water district is sold to the city of McAllen,” Hinojosa testified.
“We have a layer of government on top of another layer of government which really creates a lot of problems, not only for the city but for the farmers. The city of McAllen is willing to not only pick up any of the liabilities the water district might have but also provide the services at a much lower cost, not only to the water users in the city of McAllen but guarantee that water at a lower cost, on the same level that is being charged to the farmers, the few remaining farmers.”
Perry vetoed Hinojosa’s water district bill last session because a vote on the district’s dissolution would have been taken by all the residents of McAllen, not just those living in the district. Hinojosa said his office is in contact with the Governor’s office to make sure it is not vetoed again. He said Perry has agreed not to veto the bill this session if voting power is limited to those living within the boundaries of the district. “We are working on the wording for the bill,” Hinojosa told the committee.
The general manager of HCWID No. 3 is Othal Brand, Jr. Brand said he and the water district’s lobbyist decided not to testify against Hinojosa’s bill in the Senate because it would be a lost cause. “The Senate always backs Chuy,” he said.
Brand said Water District No. 3 would work hard to defeat the bill in the House and would counter “a lot of misinformation” that was put out by city leaders at the Senate hearing. He said he was encouraged to receive support in his efforts to defeat SB 1890 from the Texas Farm Bureau and the Texas Irrigation Council.
“Chuy’s bill is just as bad as the original bill. It would allow people to vote on the dissolution of our water district that are not entitled to vote,” Brand said.
“This is pure politics to help the City of McAllen. The city’s number one money maker is its water department. It is a cash cow. What we provide is a service. We break even year after year. That is what government should be about, not gauging the public. Take the conservation plan the City of McAllen is operating right now. It is nothing but a show. They are saving just two percent. That is nothing in a water crisis,” Brand said.
Frank “Jo Jo” White is general manager of Hidalgo County Irrigation District No. 9, which is based in Mercedes. White said it is “very unfortunate” that an irrigation district is being dissolved against the wishes of the district itself.
“Instead of looking at the real issues at hand, it has been personalities that have been driving this thing. You have some very, very, big egos on both sides of the table, with the city and with the irrigation district. Personally speaking, I think it is a shame that there has been this clash of egos that has led us to this point,” White said.
“I hate to see one political entity takeover another political entity by this means, when the entity being absorbed does not want to be absorbed. I have a problem with that. If the district said, ‘here are the keys, take it, then no problem.’ If it is still a viable entity, which it is, then I have a problem with the way it is being done.”
White said there are clearly some “ingrained hard feelings.” He said things should never have gotten to this point. “Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3 is a good irrigation district and McAllen is a fine city. You just had some people on each side that just butted heads. To hell with the issues involved, they either just didn’t like each other or wanted to be the big man on the block,” he said.
At its meeting at Arturo’s Restaurant in Weslaco, the Rio Grande Valley Water District Manager's Association agreed to help HCWID No. 3, both through financial support and with testimony at the state Capitol.