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An eight-year legal battle that challenged the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s unique board structure came to an end last week in the aquifer authority’s favor.
In its 2012 lawsuit, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) claimed that the regional water management agency unconstitutionally weighted its 17-member board in favor of rural areas, leaving the more densely-populated Bexar County with less voting power. In August 2019, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the board structure balanced competing water interests in the region and is exempt from the constitutional “one person, one vote” principle.
LULAC appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected the request to hear it last month. The Hispanic advocacy and civil rights nonprofit did not file a request for a rehearing by the May 22 deadline, effectively concluding the suit.
“This further assures the stability of our mission with greater certainty that we will be able to continue to manage, enhance, and protect the Edwards Aquifer system in the manner the Texas Legislature intended,” Roland Ruiz, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, stated in a news release this week. “With the issue of governance resolved by the highest court in the land, we can now move forward without distraction in carrying out our purpose and fully focus on ensuring the long-term sustainability of an aquifer that serves as a primary water resource for more than 2 million people of South-Central Texas.”
The San Antonio Water System, which owns a majority of pumping rights to the Edwards Aquifer, had joined the case on the side of LULAC.
Luis Roberto Vera Jr., LULAC’s general counsel, said the nonprofit saw no value in filing for a rehearing.
“There was no sense in fighting this one” if the Supreme Court won’t even hear it, Vera said. “We’re realists.”
The court is essentially saying that “some people are more equal than others,” he said.
But appeals court judges said that the Edwards Aquifer Authority is exempt from the “one person, one vote” rule as a “special purpose district” and concluded that the board “apportionment scheme was rationally related to the [aquifer authority’s] statutory goals in balancing the competing interests of the three regions.”
The aquifer authority was established in 1993 to manage the Edwards Aquifer, the largest source of drinking water in the San Antonio region.
Its jurisdiction is split into districts and assigned board representatives, but they are not based on population: seven in Bexar County, one in Comal County, one representing parts of both Comal and Guadalupe counties, one in Hays County, one representing parts of Hays and Caldwell counties, one in Medina County, one representing parts of Medina and Atascosa counties, and two in Uvalde County.
That means Bexar County, with a population of more than 2 million, is represented by seven votes, and the other counties, with a combined population of 893,000, get eight. (Two appointed members of the board are non-voting.)
The urban community’s “vote is worth half of what [the rural community] vote is,” Vera said.
But the per-capita water use of residents in rural counties is several times that of Bexar County, the aquifer authority argued. The Fifth Court of Appeals agreed.
“Such disparate usage shows that residents of the agricultural and spring-flow counties are more dependent upon the aquifer and thus are disproportionately affected by the [aquifer authority’s] regulation thereof,” it wrote.