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Cameron Drummond, new American Statesman reporter for Bastrop County --- Welcome, and thank you for your reporting!

Austin American Statesman, February 2, 2021

Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District delays decision on LCRA water well permits

Cameron Drummond

Austin American-Statesman

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The lengthy battle over groundwater rights in Bastrop County between local landowners and the Lower Colorado River Authority is still without a resolution.

The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District's board voted Jan. 28 to continue a hearing from that night to an unspecified later date as the board evaluates the LCRA’s request for permits to drill eight water wells on the Griffith League Boy Scout Ranch, north of Bastrop, and pump 25,000 acre-feet, or about 8.15 billion gallons, of water per year from the underlying Simsboro Aquifer.

The board cited its need to gather more information before approving or denying the permits, ensuring the years-long water war would continue beyond the three-hour meeting held last week at the Bastrop Convention Center.

Last week’s meeting and public comment period featured many of the same faces involved with the process since 2018, when the LCRA submitted an application to drill the wells and pump water from the aquifer.

Grassroots groups formed in opposition to the LCRA's application, including environmental groups that said the amount of water the authority is requesting is more than the aquifer could safely sustain and landowners who expressed concerns about their own wells running dry.

Other entities, like the city of Elgin, AQUA Water Supply and other private companies with existing pumping permits, argued the LCRA’s proposed pumping would impact the long-term viability of their water supplies.

These groups all challenged the LCRA’s request during a week-long hearing in October 2019 before the State Office Of Administrative Hearings.

Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful when in March 2020 administrative law judges Ross Henderson and Rebecca Smith delivered an 80-page decision in which they determined the LCRA’s proposed pumping would not “unreasonably affect” the aquifer.

Now with the fate of the permits in the hands of the LPGCD board, those same groups continued their movement against the LCRA's request.

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Paul Terrill, an attorney representing Recharge Water — a water marketing company that won its own fight in 2018 in Bastrop County for 15 billion gallons of water annually — is looking to protect Recharge’s water rights against the LCRA’s plans.

During last week’s meeting, Terrill described the application filed by the LCRA as “slipshod” and said it included “basic failures of fact.”

Many of those protesting the LCRA's permits cited a lack of addressing the potential localized impacts of the wells and their pumping as a reason the permits should not be granted.

Cole Ruiz, a lawyer representing the city of Elgin, said the nearly 8.15 billion gallons of water the LCRA wants to pump per year is an exorbitant amount. He said Elgin’s lone source of water for its municipal water utility system — which provides water service to around 11,000 people — is groundwater produced from Elgin’s wells, the majority of which use the Simsboro Aquifer as a source.

Concerns about the potential effect the wells and resulting pumping would have on surface water resources were mentioned by Marisa Perales, an attorney representing Environmental Stewardship, a Bastrop County nonprofit working to protect local water sources.

“It is unreasonable to summarily dismiss the potential for impact on surface water resources that would be caused by the requested permits," Perales said.

In addition to the environmental concerns levied against the LCRA’s plans, lawyers from AQUA Water Supply — a nonprofit water utility — said if the permits were granted, AQUA would lose between $10-20 million in well, infrastructure and water rights.

‘This tells me they could really care less’

The five people who spoke during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting pushed against the LCRA’s permit plans but also took issue with the meeting being held during the coronavirus pandemic.

In-person attendance was limited to LPGCD board members and a special counsel, two representatives from each party to the contested case proceeding, district staff, a court reporter and on-site personnel.

This meant residents needed sufficient internet access to join the meeting over Zoom, a barrier to entry for those in the rural area where the wells would be located.

“They (the LCRA) should, and they darn sure know better, than to push for a hearing in a rural community online and in the middle of a pandemic,” said Linda Curtis, a volunteer coordinator with the League of Independent Voters of Texas.

“This tells me they could really care less to understand what is happening to local wells.”

“The decisions this board is going to make will affect hundreds if not thousands of people and they all should have the right to be before you in person to express their concerns about that,” said Travis Brown, a board member with the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund.

Another common refrain expressed by those who participated in the public comment portion was a desire to address potential problems from nearby water well pumping projects before any additional permits are issued.

According to SAWDF, landowners in northeastern Lee County have connected recent failures in their domestic and livestock water wells to the Vista Ridge project, a 142-mile pipeline connecting San Antonio to 18 wells in western Burleson County, although those wells are part of the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District.

Furthermore, the commenters said a lack of need for the water the LCRA is trying to acquire is another reason the permits shouldn’t be issued.

“If we as a society want to avoid committing ecological suicide, there’s no alternative but to manage aquifers in a way that assures resiliency of the resource by developing it only in sustainable ways,” said Michele Gangnes, a director of SAWDF.

Lower Colorado River Authority responds

Emily Rogers, an attorney for the LCRA, responded to opponents' charges by citing provisions in the permits recommended by the administrative law judges.

Those provisions would include phasing requirements for how the LCRA could increase pumping over time to reflect aquifer conditions and residents' demand for water as well as a monitoring plan.

Rogers also told the board that past permits for wells and pumping for Recharge Water included similar provisions to those included for the LCRA.

“To treat LCRA substantially differently by including further permit restrictions or arbitrarily reducing the permit amounts, would be unreasonably discriminatory,” Rogers said.

Before the LPGCD board voted to continue the hearing at a later date, it asked the protestants whether they would object to a permit allowing the LCRA to pump only 8,000 acre-feet, or about 2.6 billion gallons, of water per year from the Simsboro Aquifer.

The majority of protestants said they would not object to that permit, but added that the LCRA has not met its burden and should be denied the permits anyway.