LEAGUE OF UNITED LATIN AMERICAN CITIZENS, (LULAC); MARIA MARTINEZ; JESSE ALANIZ, JR.; RAMIRO NAVA, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
EDWARDS AQUIFER AUTHORITY, Defendant-Appellee, CITY OF SAN MARCOS; CITY OF UVALDE; UVALDE COUNTY; NEW BRAUNFELS UTILITIES, also known as NBU; GUADALUPE-BLANCO RIVER AUTHORITY, Intervenor Defendants-Appellees.
from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Texas
Higginbotham, Smith, and Southwick, Circuit Judges.
E. Smith, Circuit Judge:
Edwards Aquifer Authority ("EAA") is a conservation
and reclamation district established to regulate the
groundwater of the Edwards Aquifer for the benefit of
dependent users and species. The League of United Latin
American Citizens and its Bexar County members Maria
Martinez, Jesse Alaniz, Jr., and Ramiro Nava (collectively,
"LULAC") sued the EAA, asserting that its electoral
scheme violated the "one person, one vote"
principle of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment. Claiming to be a special-purpose unit of
government, the EAA countered that it was exempt from such
strictures. The district court granted summary judgment for
the EAA, finding that its limited functions
disproportionately impact those most empowered in its
elections and that its apportionment scheme has a rational
basis. We agree and affirm.
Edwards Aquifer "is a unique underground system of
water-bearing formations." Barshop v. Medina Cty.
Underground Water Conservation Dist., 925 S.W.2d 618,
623 (Tex. 1996). Water enters the aquifer as rainfall and
surface water and exits through well-withdrawals and spring
discharges. Id. As "the primary source of water
for south central Texas," it is "vital to the
residents, industry, and ecology of the region, the
State's economy, and the public welfare."
Edwards Aquifer Auth. v. Chem. Lime, Ltd., 291
S.W.3d 392, 394 (Tex. 2009).
the 1980s, overdrafting of the aquifer threatened various
species that "rel[ied] upon adequate and continuous
natural flows of fresh water . . . as an environment for
their survival." Sierra Club v. Lujan, No.
MO-91-CA-069, 1993 WL 151353, at *5 (W.D. Tex. Feb. 1, 1993).
At the time, the Edwards Underground Water District
("EUWD") administered the aquifer. But it
ultimately "lacked the regulatory authority the
Legislature came to believe was essential." Chem.
Lime, 291 S.W.3d at 394. Responding to successful
litigation under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the
Texas legislature replaced the EUWD with the EAA in 1993,
vesting it with "broad powers 'for the effective
control of the resource to protect terrestrial and aquatic
life, domestic and municipal water supplies, the operation of
existing industries, and the economic development of the
the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act,  the EAA possesses "all
of the powers, rights, and privileges necessary to manage,
conserve, preserve, and protect the aquifer and to increase
the recharge of, and prevent the waste or pollution of water
in, the aquifer." Act § 1.08(a). Those powers
include the ability to hire employees; enter contracts; issue
grants or loans for water conservation and reuse; finance,
construct, and operate dams and reservoirs; assert the power
of eminent domain; and otherwise adopt and enforce rules
necessary to execute its functions. See id. §
prohibits the withdrawal of aquifer water without a permit,
limits the annual amount of permitted withdrawals, "and
gives preference to 'existing user[s]' . . . who
'withdr[ew] and beneficially used underground water from
the aquifer on or before June 1, 1993.'" Chem.
Lime, 291 S.W.3d at 394- 95 (quoting Act §
1.03(10)); see also Act §§ 1.14(c), 1.15.
An existing user who submits "a declaration of
historical use of underground water," pays an
application fee, and "establishes by convincing evidence
beneficial use of" aquifer water is entitled to a
permit. Subject to the annual cap on withdrawals,
the EAA may grant "additional regular permits"
after processing existing users' applications. Act §
1.18(a). Currently, there are fewer than two thousand active
holders "may not violate the terms or conditions of the
permit" or use aquifer water outside the boundaries of
the EAA. Id. §§ 1.34(a), 1.35(b). They
must meter their water usage, avoid waste, and implement
conservation plans approved by the EAA. During a drought,
the EAA may impose "utility pricing . . . to limit
discretionary use by the customers of water utilities"
and require further "reduction of nondiscretionary use
by permitted or contractual users." Act §
has adopted rules to preserve the quality of water in the
aquifer. Specifically, the EAA regulates the construction,
operation, and maintenance of wells that draw from the
aquifer or are drilled through it. See EAA Rules
§§ 713.200-203. The rest of its regulations,
however, are limited to the recharge and contributing zones,
where pollutants are most likely to seep into the aquifer.
Within those regions, the EAA mandates the reporting of
noxious spills and regulates facilities housing toxic
substances for commercial use. Id. §§
713.400-401, 713.501. It further governs the storage of
hazardous substances in large aboveground and underground
storage tanks in the recharge zone. Id. §
713.603. And it proscribes the use of coal tar-based pavement
sealant products in the parts of Comal and Hays Counties that
overlie the recharge and contributing zones. Id.
ensure compliance with the Act and its regulations, EAA
employees "may enter private or public property at any
reasonable time," provided they "observe the
establishment's rules concerning safety, internal
security, and fire protection[;] . . . notify any occupant of
their presence[;] and present proper identification."
Id. § 717.104. If a violation has occurred, the
EAA may suspend a permit, assess an administrative penalty,
or sue for an injunction or civil penalty. Act §§
explicitly prohibits the EAA from levying a property tax to
finance its operations. Id. § 1.28(a). With the
approval of the state attorney general and the Texas
Commission on Environmental Quality ("TCEQ"),
however, the EAA may issue revenue bonds for the purchase of
land or necessary equipment. Id. § 1.28(b)-(c).
Moreover, it may "assess equitable aquifer management
fees based on aquifer use." Id. § 1.29(b).
Alternatively, other water districts located within its
boundaries may contract with the EAA to pay its expenses
through taxes collected from water users in those districts.
Id. But in any case, the EAA may not charge
"more than is reasonably necessary for [its]
EAA's jurisdiction covers eight counties representing
three distinct regions: (1) the western agricultural counties
of Atascosa, Medina, and Uvalde, where approximately 117, 000
persons dwell; (2) the eastern spring-flow counties of
Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, and Hays, where roughly 435, 000
people live; and (3) the urban county of Bexar, which has
over 1.7 million residents. Initially, the Act provided that
each region would appoint three members to the EAA board of
directors. See Act of May 30, 1993, 73d Leg., R.S.,
ch. 626, § 1.09, 1993 Tex. Gen. Laws 2350, 2356-57. But
the Department of Justice ("DOJ") denied
preclearance under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
"due to the appointment method of selecting the board of
directors." Barshop, 925 S.W.2d at 625. In
consultation with the DOJ, the Texas legislature amended the
Act in 1995 to establish a board of directors comprised of
fifteen popularly elected members and two appointed
non-voting members. Act § 1.09. Under the current
scheme, the agricultural and spring-flow counties elect four
directors each, whereas Bexar County elects seven directors.
Id. § 1.093.
sued the EAA in 2012, claiming, inter alia, that its
electoral system contravened the principle of "one
person, one vote." Conceding that its electoral
districts were malapportioned, the EAA rejoined that, as a
special-purpose district, it was exempt from the "one
person, one vote" requirement. The San Antonio Water
System filed a complaint as plaintiff-intervenor, and the
City of San Marcos, the City of Uvalde, Uvalde County, New
Braunfels Utilities, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority
intervened as defendants. Both sides moved for summary
district court denied LULAC's motion and granted summary
judgment for the EAA, noting that its "power and
authority [wa]s limited to carrying out its narrowly defined
statutory purposes to manage, protect, preserve, and conserve
the water in the aquifer." Given that the per capita
usage of aquifer water was significantly higher in the
agricultural and spring-flow counties than in Bexar County,
the court explained that the EAA's activities
disproportionately affected those most advantaged in its
elections. It therefore held that, under Salyer Land Co.
v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District, 410 U.S.
719 (1973), and Ball v. James, 451 U.S. 355 (1981),
the EAA is not subject to the strictures of "one person,
one vote." Additionally, the court concluded that the
apportionment scheme was rationally related to the EAA's
statutory goals in balancing the competing interests of the
three regions. LULAC appeals.
heart of democratic society is "[t]he right to vote
freely for the candidate of one's choice."
Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964). That
right, however, "can be denied by a debasement or
dilution of the weight of a citizen's vote just as
effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the
franchise." Id. "[A]s a basic
constitutional standard," legislative districts must
"be apportioned on a population basis."
Id. at 568; see also Wesberry v. Sanders,
376 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1964).
Avery v. Midland County, 390 U.S. 474 (1968), the
Court extended the principle of "one person, one
vote" to the elections of local government officials.
That case concerned the Midland County Commissioners Court,
which possessed the authority to appoint minor officials;
enter contracts; issue bonds; set the county tax rate; adopt
a county budget; conduct elections; administer public welfare
services; establish a public housing authority; fix school
district boundaries; and construct and operate a courthouse,
jail, hospital, airport, libraries, bridges, and roads.
Id. at 476-77. Though recognizing that the
Constitution is "not [a] roadblock in the path of
innovation, experiment, and development among units of local
government," the Court held that "units with
general governmental powers over an entire geographic area
[may] not be apportioned among single-member districts of
substantially unequal population." Id. at
485-86. Because the Commissioners Court possessed "the
authority to make a substantial number of decisions that
affect all citizens," the Court determined that its
elections must comply with the "one person, one
vote" requirement. Id. at 484. Nevertheless,
the Court surmised the outcome might be different
"[w]ere the Commissioners Court a special-purpose unit
of government assigned the performance of functions affecting
definable groups of constituents more than other
constituents." Id. at 483-84.
Court reached a similar conclusion in Hadley v. Junior
College District, 397 U.S. 50 (1970). There, the
plaintiffs claimed they had been denied an equal right to
vote for junior college trustees, who were authorized to make
employment decisions, form contracts, issue bonds, levy taxes
and fees, supervise and discipline students, review petitions
to annex school districts, condemn private property,
"and in general manage the operations of the junior
college." Id. at 53. The Court agreed. Although
those powers were "not fully as broad as those of
the" Commissioners Court, "the trustees perform[ed]
important governmental functions" that were
"general enough and ha[d] sufficient impact" to
trigger the principle of "one person, one vote."
Id. at 53-54. Yet once again, the Court acknowledged
the possibility "that there might be some case in which
a State elects certain functionaries whose duties are so far
removed from normal governmental activities and so
disproportionately affect different groups that a popular
election in compliance with Reynolds . . . might not
be required." Id. at 56.
case arose in Salyer. At issue was the Tulare Lake
Basin Water Storage District, which covered 193, 000 acres of
California farmland and contained only seventy-seven
residents. Salyer, 410 U.S. at 723. Though
"vested with some typical governmental
powers"-including the ability to hire and fire
employees, make contracts, issue bonds, condemn property, and
cooperate with other agencies-the Tulare District "ha[d]
relatively limited authority." Id. at 728 &
n.7. "Its primary purpose, indeed the reason for its
existence, [wa]s to provide for the acquisition, storage, and
distribution of water for farming in the Tulare Lake
Basin." Id. at 728. Notably, the district
"provide[d] no other general public services such as
schools, housing, transportation, utilities, roads, or
anything else of the type ordinarily financed by a municipal
body." Id. at 728-29.
importantly, "its actions disproportionately affect[ed]
landowners." Id. at 729. The entire cost of its
operations was assessed against the land in proportion to the
benefits received, and any delinquent payments became a lien
on the land itself. Id. "In short, there [wa]s
no way that the economic burdens of district operations
c[ould] fall on residents qua residents . . . ."
Id. Consequently, the Court held that the district
was not subject to the strict requirements of
Reynolds. Id. at 728. Instead, the Court
found a rational basis for permitting only landowners to vote
in the district's elections and for apportioning such
votes according to the assessed valuation of the
Ball, 451 U.S. at 357, the Court confronted another
water reclamation district that restricted the franchise to
landowners and apportioned voting power based on the amount
of land a voter owned. Unlike the relatively small Tulare
District, however, the Salt River Project Agricultural
Improvement and Power District covered nearly half the
population of Arizona. Id. at 365. And whereas the
operating costs of the Tulare District were assessed against
the land, the Salt River District funded its activities
through the sale of electric power and had become one of the
largest electric providers in the state. Id. at
365-66. But those "distinctions d[id] not amount to a
constitutional difference." Id. at 366.
all, the Salt River District could not impose ad
valorem property or sales taxes; enact laws governing
the conduct of citizens; maintain streets or schools; or
provide sanitation, health, or welfare services. Id.
Furthermore, the district's water functions were
"relatively narrow" because it "d[id] not own,
sell, or buy water, nor d[id] [it] control the use of any
water" once distributed. Id. at 367. Rather, it
"simply store[d] water behind its dams, conserve[d] it
from loss, and deliver[ed] it through project canals."
Id. Moreover, "neither the existence nor size
of the District's power business" was
"constitutionally relevant" because "the
provision of electricity is not a traditional element of