Rollback of Bosque rules halted

Politics



Editor’s note: The Tribune-Herald is wrapping up 2023 with a series looking back at the Waco area’s top stories of the year, chosen by our editors and staff writers. The countdown continues with No. 7.

Waco leaders found themselves on the barricades this year when a long-buried conflict between rural dairies and urban drinking water rose from its unquiet grave.

Over the city’s protests, the Texas State House of Representatives in May voted to dismantle a two-decade-old permitting system intended to keep manure from dairies out of the North Bosque River upstream of Lake Waco.

House Bill 2827 was passed by the House by a 77-61 vote, then died a quiet death in a Senate committee headed by Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Granbury Republican who represents both Waco and the dairy country around Erath County.

But the episode showed the vulnerability of a regulatory regime that city leaders have long credited for improving the water quality of the river and lake, once known for algae blooms that gave Waco water a stinky reputation.

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“The bill was likely filed in good faith to try to bring solutions to bear for the dairy industry,” Mayor Dillon Meek said in an interview in late April. “The unintended consequence of that would be, I think, losing the opportunity for the public to comment, and thus increase the risk of greater pollution in the North Bosque River,” the waterway that feeds Lake Waco and supplies the city’s drinking water.



In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed permitting laws that applied only to the highly concentrated dairy region in the North Bosque watershed near Stephenville. A federal and state environmental process found that the North Bosque was “impaired” largely because of phosphorus nutrients from manure that spilled out of waste lagoons and was spread on fields. The law required individual permits with waste-handing tailored to each dairy site, and which could be contested by parties such as the city of Waco.

HB 2827 would have ended those permits and allowed the dairies to revert to a general permit, which dairy advocates said would relieve North Bosque operators from onerous rules that do not apply to their counterparts elsewhere in Texas.

Agriculture interests, led by the Texas Association of Dairymen and Texas Farm Bureau, pushed for the legislation filed by Rep. DeWayne Burns, R-Cleburne.

Since the legislation was defeated, leaders from the city of Waco and agricultural advocates have pledged to meet to try to find common ground before the next legislative session in 2025, perhaps allowing some regulatory streamlining.

In the meantime, the Bosque issue has already emerged as an issue in next year’s legislative elections.

In a recent interview, Pat Curry, Republican candidate for the House District 56 seat being vacated by Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, listed protecting the Bosque River as a top priority, saying he hopes to resolve dairy farmers’ concerns without the need for new legislation weakening water quality standards. Republican challenger Devvie Duke agreed on the importance of the Bosque issue and said the dairy regulations need to stay in effect. Erin Shank, Democratic candidate for the seat, agreed that protecting Bosque water quality is a top priority.

Anderson voted against the bill and tried unsuccessfully to block it with procedural moves on the House floor.

Angelia Orr, R-Itasca, who represents eastern McLennan County, voted with the majority for unwinding the North Bosque regulations. Waco Mayor Dillon Meek at the time said he was “startled and disappointed” with Orr’s vote for the legislation, which he said would harm her constituents.

In an interview this month regarding her reelection campaign for the District 13 House seat, Orr defended her vote. She said the permitting process for North Bosque dairies is an expensive burden that other dairy operators do not have to bear.

“I support small businesses, and dairies and ranchers are small businesses,” she said. “And it didn’t seem to me that having a city government be able to put that kind of a burden on a private business that was two counties away, did not not seem like the right solution.”

However, Orr said she now favors a solution outside the Legislature to the conflict.

Since the legislative battle, Waco Assistant City Manager Paul Cain has met with top leaders of Texas Farm Bureau and Texas Association of Dairymen on water quality and regulatory issues and has toured dairies in the North Bosque watershed to learn more about those issues.

“We are talking, sharing thoughts and perspectives, and working to identify mutually beneficial solutions,” he said in an email for this story. “Communication is open and honest. That’s a good thing.”

Texas Farm Bureau Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Si Cook said in a statement that communication with the city is ongoing.

“We appreciate the willingness of the city of Waco to search for solutions in 2024,” he said.

In a text, Mayor Meek said he is “optimistic that real progress can be made to address the concerns of everyone involved — supporting agri-business in Texas without sacrificing the quality of our water, our most precious natural resource.”



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