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2023 End-of-Year Newsletter

As reported here by Executive Director Andy Wier, SAWDF had a busy year!

Dear Friends,

We apologize for the gap in our reporting to you, about which some of you have inquired. The truth is, there's been a lot going on. Andy Wier is our chief reporter, but he's also involved in everything we might report on and gets very busy as our "part-time" Executive Director.

That's our way of apologizing for the length of this year-end recap of SAWDF's 2023. We hope it's of interest to you, gives you context, and inspires you to get involved in our work to protect aquifers and property rights.

We wish each of you a peaceful and joyous New Year, and we thank you for your support and participation.

The SAWDF Board

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December 2023

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the age of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


I received the quote above on Christmas day in the Weekly Dose of Hope, a free subscription from Interfaith Action of Central Texas [iACT]. I had been struggling with composing our end-of-the-year SAWDF Update, and this quote summed up 2023. Depending on your perspective— landowner, board member, or the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer itself—2023 has seen both the best and the worst of times!

We rejoiced to see state legislation passed to give Groundwater Conservation Districts [GCDs] the authority to pay for mitigating failing domestic & livestock wells. However, our joy is restrained with fear that the ability to mitigate wells will encourage water marketers/GCDs to throw caution to the wind and mine the aquifers with deeper drawdowns.

We rejoiced to see the Post Oak Savannah GCD [POSGCD] and Vista Ridge collaborate on a reduction in pumping from the Carrizo formation, which resulted in a brief reduction in falling water levels. But our joy is restrained by the reality that this means increased pumping in the Simsboro formation, resulting in accelerated declines for other wells.

We rejoiced to see the Lost Pines GCD [LPGCD] approve new Rules with maximum production levels that address reasonable pumping in future permits. Our joy is restrained by a lawsuit filed by the Lower Colorado River Authority [LCRA] challenging all the new Rules, including maximum production levels.

We rejoiced to see the Paint Creek and Stockade Ranch Rd community unite in a tremendous effort to rein in a large permit by the Thomas Turfgrass company. This was a permit that originally flew under SAWDF’s radar, by the way. With leadership from Jay & Diann Watson, surrounding landowners prepared impressive graphic evidence and presented compelling arguments that Thomas Turfgrass be awarded only a third of their application due to unreasonable impacts. Ultimately, the LPGCD board narrowly approved a modified permit for one-half of the permit application.

We experienced the same restrained joy over a recent permit awarded to Aqua WSC. While the permit appears reasonable, the district’s hydrological report showed that the pumping will consume outflows the aquifer normally contributes to creeks and the Colorado River. SAWDF raised the alarm about these surface water impacts in the initial public hearing. Environmental Stewardship took the baton when the hearing continued and made compelling arguments for surface water monitoring. Thankfully, an agreement by Aqua WSC and LPGCD included two surface water monitoring wells to help warn of negative impacts.

I thought it an odd quote for a Dose of Hope, until I read the contributor’s reflection. “What is my Dose of Hope? It is knowing we can work collectively to achieve desired outcomes for the greater good of humanity. We can improve our lives and the lives of others.” That resonated with me and gave me hope. That is why I continue to dedicate my time, talents, and funds to the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund [SAWDF]. As you look back on 2023, I hope you will reflect on your own experience and feelings— what were the best and worst of times?

Below is a list of activities/issues in which SAWDF is engaged. To stay engaged—i.e., executive director’s stipend, conference fees, membership dues, travel, subscriptions, printing, etc.— SAWDF needs to raise approximately $20,000 each year. But let’s be clear, while your financial contributions are greatly appreciated, it is your presence, your voice, and your commitment to work collectively to protect groundwater rights and the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer that moves mountains! Thank you.

Here’s where SAWDF put its time, talent, and funds in 2023

[Editor's Note: SAWDF Executive Director Andy Wier continued his leadership activities, and the board is both grateful for and proud of his commitments and efforts.]

SAWDF chartered a bus to bring 35 citizen-advocates, county officials and three speakers from Lee and Bastrop counties to the Texas Senate’s interim groundwater hearing; where they engaged senators in an hour-long discussion on groundwater issues related to large-scale export permits such as Vista Ridge.

During the 88th Texas Legislative Session [Dec 2022- May 2023] SAWDF & landowners met with legislators to draft legislation and give testimony. Andy sweetened the pot with homemade dewberry-jalapeño jam for key legislators and their staff!

Chairman Charles Perry, Senate Agriculture, Water & Rural Affairs Committee

o Filed SB 1988 regarding municipal water loss [drafted by SAWDF]

o Constitutional amendment to fund new water supplies

Senator Lois Kolkhorst

o Filed SB 1080 regarding LPGCD mitigation [with help from SAWDF & LPGCD board]

Senator Charles Schwertner

o Supported groundwater legislation

Chairman Tracy O. King, House Natural Resources Committee

o Filed HB 3059 regarding export fees and GCD mitigation [in response to well-owner testimony at interim hearings]

o Constitutional amendment to fund new water supplies

Representative Stan Gerdes

o Filed HB 3314, companion to SB 1080 [with help from SAWDF ]

o Filed HB 4445, companion to SB 1988 [drafted by SAWDF]

o Filed HB 5052 regarding unreasonable impacts to domestic & livestock wells [drafted by SAWDF]

o Filed HB 3398 regarding zoning authority for counties

Andy attended the Texas Water Development Board [TWDB] “Water for Texas” Conference in January 2023. During a presentation by the Texas Water Foundation on a media campaign titled, “Texas Runs on Water,” promoting water stewardship, Andy was inspired to extend a SAWDF invitation to San Antonio Water System [SAWS] and LPGCD to collaborate on a poster/video contest for students in Lexington (Lee County) and a sister San Antonio school. Under the “Texas Runs on Water” banner, the schools will exchange and judge entries about the importance of water; hopefully, learning something new about how rural/urban environments steward their water resources. Shaming and blaming of Vista Ridge at the Legislature has failed to move the CEO of SAWS, Robert Puente, who refuses to acknowledge, even to the Legislature, Vista Ridge’s impacts in Lee County. We hope this simple project, inspired by TWF, will increase understanding and empathy between these communities that now depend on the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

SAWDF assisted landowners formally contesting permits by Sandow Lakes Ranch [SLR] in Milam County and landowners protesting the Thomas Turfgrass permit in Bastrop County. For contestants or protestants, SAWDF can help unpack the statutes in Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, the process for participating in the groundwater permitting process, and the Rules that govern GCDs. SAWDF can also provide referrals to legal counsel and professional hydrogeologists.

Membership in the Texas Water Conservation Association [TWCA] gives SAWDF unparalleled access to every aspect of water and wastewater systems in Texas. Members include more than 2,000 professionals and over 350 government entities, consultants, and associations who are dedicated to water resource management in the state of Texas. An increasing number of environmental and advocacy groups are participating in TWCA. Executive director Wier attends two of the three TWCA conferences held each year. He is a member of both the Groundwater and Water Quality working committees where much of Texas groundwater legislation originates. Rough drafts of legislation for the protection & mitigation of domestic & livestock wells originated at TWCA.

In June 2023, the LPGCD board approved new Rules including preliminary Maximum Production Levels expressed as acre-feet/year of production per surface acre [AFY/acre]. This essentially establishes correlative rights and is a dramatic change for LPGCD. The board appointed a Rulemaking Stakeholder Group to review/refine these production limits. Environmental Stewardship and SAWDF were selected to participate along with landowners, exempt well owners, local government officials, water supply corporations, municipal water suppliers, Environmental Defense Fund, and water marketers like the LCRA. SAWDF proposed the group adopt guiding principles, i.e., sustainability and prevention of significant, sustained water level declines. While the LCRA participated in the group, the utility also filed a lawsuit challenging the new LPGCD Rules. This action cut off the group’s access to important resources, including the district’s hydrogeologist and legal staff. However, SAWDF and Environmental Stewardship proposed a path forward. The proposal received unanimous support from the group. If the LPGCD board approves, we will see more activity in Spring 2024.

LPGCD updated the website in early 2023 and added a public map with LPGCD registered wells and a virtual ‘boring tool” that landowners could employ to investigate what formations exist under their property and plan how deep to drill for a successful water well. Before referring interested landowners, Andy Wier tested the tool and found it had the wrong depths for the aquifer formations. LPGCD board president, Hernandez asked Andy to work with the web developers to correct the map info. The tool is now working correctly with information on the depths of the Sparta, Queen City, Carrizo, Calvert Bluff, Simsboro and Hooper formations.

In late August, Executive Director Wier attended the annual Groundwater Summit held by the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts [TAGD]. Similar to TWCA, this is a wonderful opportunity to network with GCD staff, their legal and hydrological consultants, and to hear presentations on best-available science and groundwater management policy.

SAWDF and landowners from Bastrop, Lee, Burleson, and Milam counties attended the POSGCD Annual Groundwater Summit. In welcoming remarks, Burleson County Judge Keith Schroeder called on POSGCD board members to be bold and keep the citizens of Milam and Burleson counties foremost in their deliberations. A panel discussion on “sustainable production” set a new direction for the POSGCD summit that will hopefully bear fruit in future management practices.

During 2023, five different TCEQ wastewater permits were filed— totaling more than one-million gallons per day of treated effluent— all with outfalls into the only section of the Colorado River that directly interacts with the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer. Working with Rep. Gerdes and Sen. Schwertner, Andy Wier requested public hearings on these permits. SAWDF’s concern is potential contamination of the aquifer. SAWDF is part of a broad coalition with landowners, Environmental Stewardship, League of Independent Voters, Friends of the Land, City of Bastrop, and Bastrop Inter-faith. The coalition is encouraging these independent wastewater operators to connect to the new City of Bastrop Regional Wastewater plant or explore grassland/wetland features that can serve as both an amenity and an environmental post-treatment for the wastewater.

Throughout 2023, SAWDF has been communicating with Austin Water regarding potential sites for an Aquifer Storage & Recovery [ASR] project. Executive director, Andy Wier has engaged Austin Water staff at TWDB and TWCA conferences, Regional Water Planning Group and City of Austin meetings. A December news story stated that Austin Water plans to secretly select a pilot site for the ASR project by the end of 2023. SAWDF Board member Travis Brown, Lee County landowners Sheril Smith and Nancy McKee, Rep. Stan Gerdes and Lee County Judge Frank Malinak met as a group and urged Austin Water to make the site selection public. The group believes the ASR project presents serious risks to the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. Austin Water also refuses to answer whether they would use “eminent domain” to seize several thousand acres needed for the project.

Also throughout 2023, LCRA’s “other” lawsuit against LPGCD continued to wind its way through the courts. LCRA seeks to force the district to reconsider its decision to reduce LCRA’s application to pump 25,000 acre-feet per year in Bastrop County to only 8,000 AFY. Landowners, assisted by SAWDF and represented by legal counsel Don Grissom (Grissom & Thompson LLP), and other parties who protested LCRA’s demand are recognized in the lawsuit as intervenors. By year end, an interim appeal by LPGCD (joined by intervenors) from a ruling in Bastrop State District Court is still pending in the Austin Third Court of Appeals. While the reduced permit itself is at issue in the district court, the appellate court is being asked to decide whether the Bastrop court even has jurisdiction to hear LCRA’s lawsuit about the permit. A favorable ruling on that point would allow the 8,000 AFY permit to stand. It’s complicated, and not surprisingly, the flurry of legal briefing continues.

LPGCD recently committed in its Management Plan to manage the aquifers within its jurisdiction on a sustainable basis, with sustainability defined as conservation and reasonable long-term management of groundwater in perpetuity. In one of its briefs, LCRA stated: “The stakes are high. Central Texas is growing rapidly, and water is a scarce, fundamental resource.” Though our motivations may be polar opposites, at least we all agree that where we go from here is critically important. SAWDF is encouraged in its hope that the “collective” action to achieve desired outcomes we spoke about above will ultimately include LCRA and the other water marketers who are participating in the LPGCD stakeholder group. SAWDF appreciated the collaborative spirit exhibited by all who are participating in that group. To paraphrase poet Alexander Pope, Hope springs eternal.

Happy New Year to all!