AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — In his campaign for agriculture commissioner, Eric Opiela's big issue is water and property rights, and he says there is no reason why anyone should have to compromise how much they consume. The problem, he contends, is government regulations.
A water and property rights attorney, Opiela told The Associated Press in an interview that there is enough water for green lawns, rice farming and Texas' growing population. He said the current shortages, coming amid Texas' worst drought in 50 years, had as much to do with government mismanagement as lack of rainfall.
"I don't buy that it's Dallas or Houston or Austin against rural Texas. I believe that if we have more availability of water in times of drought due to developing more resources and better management I believe we'll have enough water to continue to have rural Texas thrive," said Opiela, who serves on the State Republican Executive Committee.
Opiela's view contradicts the State Water Board, water scientists and almost every environmental group in the state. While many may disagree on where to turn off the tap — whether to water-hungry suburban lawns, rice farmers that rely on river water or city waterworks marred by leaks — experts agree that a doubling of Texas' population over the next 40 years means someone is going to lose out.
While he supports taking $2 billion from the state Rainy Day Fund to set up a State Water Infrastructure Fund so that local authorities can cheaply finance big water projects, he says people should demand more efficiency from government agencies that should not dictate who gets water and who doesn't.
"I do believe we can have our cake and eat it, too," he said. "Will that cake necessarily become more expensive because some of these developments cost more? Maybe. The free market will dictate."
Opiela is running against vegetable farmer J Allen Carnes and former Stephenville Rep. Sid Miller for the Republican nomination on March 4. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples is running for lieutenant governor.
A partner in his family's 2,300-acre ranch near Karnes City, Opiela has made his career as an attorney and political activist, running for the Legislature, serving as executive director of the Republican Party of Texas and acting as a redistricting attorney for the Texas Republican Congressional Delegation. He argues that growing up on a ranch, litigating property rights cases and serving the party gives him unique skills to become agriculture commissioner.
The only government regulations Opiela said he supports are those that protect people's "God-given rights," including those to property and water. While he acknowledges that every state but Texas has done away with the common law right of a land owner to capture as much groundwater as they want from beneath their property, he opposes any attempt to rollback that right in Texas. But he acknowledged that some new rules are needed, including defining groundwater conservation districts responsible for protecting water sources based on the shape of the state's aquifers, not along political lines, such as by county.
"We have to make sure that if people's private property rights in that un-withdrawn groundwater are restricted that they are compensated," he said of possible future limits on pumping. He also said that elected groundwater boards should remain the primary policymakers.
"We do not want to move to a statewide system of groundwater management in this state," he added.
Water may be the most pressing issue during the current drought, but Opiela has spent most of his legal career in politics. His strategy as a redistricting attorney garnered severe criticism when emails he wrote revealed his plan to pack Congressional District 23 with precincts where Hispanics made up the majority, but voter turnout was very low. The strategy was to keep the district majority Hispanic while boosting Republican chances of winning because Anglos would still make up the majority of people likely to vote.
A federal court declared that the political maps drawn using that strategy intentionally discriminated against minority voters and declared the maps unconstitutional. While a separate U.S. Supreme Court decision removed the federal court's authority to make that declaration, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott urged the Legislature to pass court-drawn political maps rather than try to defend the old maps any further.
Opiela denies he did anything wrong and blamed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for creating a faulty legal framework for drawing political districts. He said over the last 20 years the Voting Rights Act has done more harm than good for race relations in the United States by increasing segregation.
"Democrats like to put everything in a racial context, when it really should be in a political context," Opiela said. But he added that he would oppose any attempt to take redistricting away from the Legislature and give it to an independent commission.
Opiela said his campaign for agriculture commissioner, work for the party and the advice he gave on redistricting combine to make him the best candidate.