LCRA board conflict denied
December 18, 2012, 10:00 pm by James Walker
A Colorado County rice farmer who sits on the Lower Colorado River Authority’s board of directors has voted to ease restrictions on releasing water from the Highland Lakes to irrigate downstream rice paddies while a record-setting drought imperils the water supply for more than a million Central Texas residents.
The director, Steve Balas of Eagle Lake, and two other directors from rice producing Matagorda and Wharton counties also are minority investors in a winery owned by San Saba board member Michael McHenry, who sided with them on contentious votes this year involving using water from the shrinking Buchanan and Travis reservoirs to flood downstream rice fields.
Balas, who owns a rice farm in Eagle Lake, has been on the LCRA board since 2007 and was reappointed to a six-year term in 2011. Like every one of the directors on the 15-member board, he was selected by Gov. Rick Perry.
In addition to being a rice farmer since 1973, Balas is a former member of the Texas Rice Producers Association and one of 15 founding directors of the U. S. Rice Producers Association Corporation and was one of three officers who incorporated the organization, according to documents filed with the Texas Secretary of State office.
He also is secretary and treasurer and a member of the board of directors of Eagle Lake Rice Dryer, Inc., which receives rice from farmers and dries it with heated air to reduce its moisture content.
However, Balas uses well water rather than LCRA water to irrigate his own fields. "I was (an LCRA customer) for a while several years ago, but not now,” he said.
His votes to allow rice irrigation water to be released at lower water levels in the Highland Lakes and on other questions that directly affect the rice industry do not place his personal interests and responsibilities as a director in conflict, he added.
"I pay close attention to recommendations by the staff and I vote for what I believe is best for the basin as a whole,” Balas explained in a recent interview.
Although Balas chairs the LCRA’s Finance and Administration Committee – which also considers such issues as the rates of all of the river authority’s customers – an LCRA spokesman pointed out that it is a committee of the whole, meaning it consists of all 15 directors.
"Director Balas does not have a conflict of interest in serving on the LCRA Board,” spokesman Jerry White wrote in an e-mail after LCRA General Counsel John Rubottom did not return calls requesting comment. "It is not a conflict of interest for Director Balas to serve as chair of the Finance and Administration Committee. The committee studies issues but makes no decisions about issues such as the price of water. All votes are taken by the Board as a whole, which is chaired by Tim Timmerman.”
For more on this story, see Wednesday's Burnet Bulletin.
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