MIAMI – Boone Pickens’ fresh water supply district will go to the voters on a special ballot in the November general election. There will be only five people voting, however.
Five people, who own eight acres in the middle of Pickens’ Mesa Vista Ranch along the Canadian River, petitioned the Roberts County Commission last month for a fresh water supply district. After a public hearing Tuesday morning, the commission approved the petition and voted to put the question on the ballot in the November election.
Only landowners within the proposed district can vote to form the fresh water supply district, and those are the five that petitioned the court for the district. They are Robert L. Stillwell, general counsel of Mesa Water; Ronald D. Bassett, a business manager with Pickens; G. Michael Boswell, general counsel of Mesa Energy; and the manager and his wife of Pickens’ ranch, Alton Keith Boone and Lu G. Boone.
Roberts County Judge Vernon Cook said he’d planned on having a week before taking any action. The commission had planned to vote on the fresh water supply district at their Sept. 10 meeting, but the decision needed to be made prior to Sept. 6 in order to meet the requirements of getting it on the November ballot.
While the fresh water supply district would help Mesa Water, created by Pickens in order to pump and sell groundwater to thirsty cities downstate, the issue is electricity.
Last summer, Pickens created Mesa Energy with plans to build a wind farm, coal-fired power plant and natural gas-fired power plant. Electricity generated by Mesa Energy would be moved to the Dallas area via some 320 miles of transmission lines.
Pickens, meeting with landowners in Pampa last month, said transmission was the key to the project. There are at least four other projects being planned that would generate electricity in the Texas Panhandle, not including wind farms at White Deer and Wilderado.
Generating the electricity, Pickens said, is not the problem. The problem is getting the electricity to a point where there is a demand for it.
Monty Humble, a lawyer representing Mesa, told the Roberts County Commission Tuesday that because Panhandle electrical rates are still regulated by the Texas Public Utilities Commission, prices are lower than rates downstate in areas without regulation.
It is these areas where Mesa thinks it can get the best price for its electricity.
Humble indicated that there are three parts to the profitability of Mesa’s plans. One is the money they can get for their electricity. Another is the size of the project.
Mesa Energy plans to generate about 5,000 megawatts of electricity and send it down their own transmission lines. The cost of the project is estimated at $10.5 billion. Humble said it would be built in phases, but it would take about eight years to complete.
The third is the speed at which they can provide the electricity.
Other plans for wind farms in the Panhandle rely on government approval and a ratepayer company at the other end of the project to pay for the transmission lines.
Mesa officials said they can build their generating plants and transmission lines much more quickly and take advantage of being first in the market.
Bob Jones, an engineering consultant for Mesa, said the transmission lines would be built and owned by the company generating the electricity, Mesa, rather than a public utility using ratepayers to pay for the transmission of the electricity.
The fresh water supply district would allow the Mesa group to tax people within the district (which Pickens in the past has said he would not do), issue tax-exempt revenue bonds to finance the project and use the condemnation power of eminent domain to gain a right-of-way across North Texas.
Humble said that with the number of local people wanting to participate in the project, he didn’t think the new district would need to use the power of eminent domain in Roberts County; however, it might be needed in one of the other 14 or 15 counties where the transmission lines and possible aqueduct might be built.
The lawyer said that even with the power of eminent domain, the land for a right-of-way would still be based on market value. He said no governmental entity can just come in and demand the land. There is a process that has to be followed to protect landowners, but it also prevents one landowner from holding up a project.
Charles W. “Bill” Philpott of Miami said he was opposed to the project.
Philpott accused Mesa of using public law for private gain.
“It’s not right,” Philpott said.
Kim Flowers, a Roberts County rancher, told the commission in comments during the hearing that many people in Roberts County had sold their water rights to Amarillo, the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority or Mesa and had gained by those sales.
“We’ve all gained,” Flowers said. “It’s not just Pickens.”
She said that some would probably be hurt in the deal, but others would gain, including her.
“I have a dog in this hunt,” Flowers said.
But she said that Mesa had always been honest in its dealing with her.
Flowers said the potential benefits outweigh the dangers. She said that Roberts County relies on oil and gas for 90 percent of its budget and this could be a way to broaden the tax base.
Kay Thompson of Miami told the commission that she objected to the coal-fired plant and the pollution it would bring.
Jones admitted that coal-fired power plants are a controversial issue, but he said that great strides have been made in cutting pollution from such plants.
Ron Harris, a former Collin County judge, told the commission that 80 percent of the pollution in the Dallas area is from cars and trucks, not coal-fired plants.
While Philpott had questioned the necessity of the project, Harris assured the commission that the need was there. It may not be in Roberts County, he said, but the need for cleaner energy sources, such as wind energy, was important in the metropolitan areas of the state. That need, he said, will grow as parts of the state are expected to double in population over the next few years.
At the same time the Roberts County Commission was meeting, the Kaufman County Commissioners were debating the same issue.
In addition to Roberts County, Mesa filed a petition in Kaufman County, adjoining Dallas County on the east, for a fresh water supply district based on 319 acres of land owned by Mike Boswell’s family.
The Kaufman County Commissioners, however, tabled the issue for future discussion.
Their attorney questioned the legality of the process. He said the petition was filed while the old law was in effect, which requires those wanting a new water district to live in the proposed district. The law was changed in the last session of the Texas Legislature, requiring that those wanting a new district simply had to own land in the proposed district.
Judge Cook said his understanding is that the important date was the date of the hearing, not the filing of the petition.
Several officials said that since the Roberts County Commission put the issue on the November ballot, thus almost assuring the creation of the new fresh water supply district, Kaufman County’s action may be moot.
Judge Cook, who in the past has opposed the exportation of water by Mesa, said he sees some merit in the energy plan.
“I think the court feels in general,” Judge Cook said, “that there are economic development benefits as well as other economic benefits in the formation of this district, and I think collectively we think this is in the best interest of the citizens of Roberts County.”
Earlier in one of his landowners meetings in Pampa, Pickens estimated that his energy projects would create 1,000 new jobs for the area.
By David Bowser
5 September 2007
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