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Groundwater Debate Continues




A version of this article appeared in the Giddings Times & News in the November 24, 2021 edition.

Lost Pines at center of controversy 

 Being no stranger to controversy over its permitting decisions in its first twenty years, the Lost Pines Groundwater ConservationDistrict has once again stepped up to the plate with conservation in mind. 

Similar to permit battles, Lost Pines’ must balance the demands of big pumpers, and landowners who have sold water rights for big projects, against virtually every other interest that will be impacted by the big pumpers, when it acts soon to finalize its Desired Future Conditions (DFC) for the next five years. 

Investors in huge commercial water supply projects, usually for municipal supply outside the district, say they must be allowed to pump their permitted amounts in order to realize their profit and investment expectations. 

Others who worry about these projects’ unreasonable impacts include landowners with domestic and livestock wells, conservation groups that that advocate for aquifers and surface water systems, local water supply companies, and even on occasion, another big pumper who fears interference with its wells. 

Two local 501c3 organizations and the 501c4 League ofIndependent Voters (LIV) have been aligned with landowners in their advocacy for sustainable aquifers and river systems, and their calls for rejection of the unreasonable impacts they predict massive pumping will produce. 

Numerous landowners in northeast Lee County believe their case was made recently when their wells began drying up in the first few months after Vista Ridge started pumping for San Antonio.   

DFCs are hot topic 

The ongoing DFC process has put Lost Pines front and center in arguments over groundwater availability, how our aquifers will be managed inthe future, and what we want our aquifers to look like at the end of every fifty-year period going forward. 

The forum for the DFC process is Groundwater Management Area12 (GMA-12). The five member districts of GMA-12 include Lost Pines, along with the Post Oak Savannah, Brazos Valley, Mid-East Texas, and Fayette County districts. 

The argument is over how much average drawdown in aquifer water levels by 2070 is “desirable”, and how much pumping will be allowed to“achieve” those drawdowns.  

 DFCs and pumping to be set 

Lost Pines and GMA-12 have entered the final phases of their current five-year, state-mandated joint planning period and will adopt final DFC for the next five years by January 5, 2022. 

GMA-12 sets its DFC in terms of how much average drawdown in aquifer water levels we will tolerate in each of the districts, over rolling fifty-year horizons. The current planning horizon ends in 2069.  

The Texas Water Development Board uses the DFC that are set for each district and each aquifer in GMA-12 to determine the districts’ estimated “modeled available groundwater” (MAG).  

MAG is the statutory term for “groundwater availability”, and is defined as the amount of water that TWDB has determined may be produced on an average annual basis in order to achieve a desired future condition. 

Under state law, the MAG becomes part of the district’s management plan, and the district is required, to the extent possible, to issue permits for a volume of water equal to the modeled available groundwater. 

Same battle lines 

When GMA-12 first deliberated on proposed DFC in early 2021,t hey did so after receiving a letter from Vista Ridge’s counsel in late 2020, threatening litigation if that project’s bottom line is affected by too conservative DFC. 

The DFC that were proposed call for significantly deeper drawdowns than the existing DFC, and in turn would allow much higher levels of additional pumping than the current MAG of 30,300 AFY. 

Conservationists mobilized 

When the proposed DFC were issued, landowners and conservation groups believed they threatened not only too many domestic and livestock wells, but also the resiliency of the Colorado River system, especially in times of drought.  

The Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund (SAWDF) and Environmental Stewardship, assisted by LIV, began a public campaign in all five districts to change minds, if not hearts.  

Over the summer, SAWDF and Environmental Stewardship argued that the proposed DFC should be rejected, in favor of maintaining as much as possible the existing drawdowns and pumping levels set in 2017. 

They asserted that desired future conditions must balance “managed depletion” of our aquifers by big pumpers, against the need for resilient natural resources that will survive in perpetuity, and the protection of property interests. 

They were joined by both the Lee County and Bastrop CountyCommissioner’s Courts, and HD-17 State Representative John Cyrier, all of whom requested that Lost Pines reject the proposed DFC and set more conservative limits. 

Lost Pines responded 

In October, Lost Pines took what SAWDF termed the first of “two steps forward”, and away from the proposed significant increases in allowable drawdowns in the Simsboro.  

The board voted unanimously to direct General Manager Totten to seek an average drawdown of 240 feet in the Simsboro under Lost Pines, instead of the proposed 311 feet. The 2017 DFC call for the same 240 feet of average drawdown, coupled with 30,300 AFY of pumping. 

Second step forward 

The board then called a special board meeting on November 8 and once again took up the DFC. According to SAWDF, they took a second step forward and set a “conservation standard” to balance protecting the aquifer and interests that depend on it, against development of the resource. 

Environmental Stewardship and SAWDF argued to the board that, although 240 feet of average drawdown was the 2017 Simsboro DFC, the board should lower the level of allowable drawdown to only 183 feet going forward.  

Their rationale was that setting a 183 foot average drawdown would keep allowable pumping in the Simsboro to 30,300 acre-feet per year (AFY). 

Citing recent changes to the state-approved computer modeling used to set the 2017 DFC, the groups asserted that 240 feet of drawdown in the Simsboro under the new model, would allow another 89,000 AFY of additional pumping.  

That much additional pumping would ensure greater impacts on large numbers of domestic and livestock wells, as well as turn the Colorado River into a losing stream by 2070. 

Notably, the district’s hydrogeologist agreed with one board member’s assertion that a pumping limit of 30,300 AFY for the next five years would not affect any known groundwater project in the Lost Pines district. 

Lively public comments 

At the November 8 meeting, the board heard from the advocacy groups and members of the public who favored lesser drawdowns than 240 feet inwater levels. The board had also been given the written backup materials for SAWDF’s and Environmental Stewardship’s arguments prior to the meeting. 

Ed McCarthy, the attorney for the Gatehouse (formerlyForestar) project, spoke in opposition to any changes in the proposed DFC.  

The permit for 28,500 AFY of pumping held by the Gatehouse project in north Lee County was reduced to zero earlier this year by Lost Pines, for failure to enter into a binding water supply contract within the first five years of the permit. 

SAWDF directorMichele Gangnes said McCarthy argued to board members that SAWDF’s andEnvironmental Stewardship’s arguments were not backed up by any solid evidence, although the two groups’ written backup materials had been previously provided to the board. 

Gangnes said he also showed a video on the Bastrop Convention Center’s jumbotron screen, of what appeared to be cobbled together Walt Disney cartoons, apparently intended to refute the “Chicken Little/The Sky is Falling” hysteria he alleged landowners, SAWDF and Environmental Stewardship were spreading. 

Split vote by board 

After an extensive public discussion among board members,  the board reconsidered its earlier support for a 240 foot average drawdown in the Simsboro.  

On a vote of six ayes and three nays, the Board voted to instruct General Manager Totten to seek a 183 foot average drawdown as the Lost Pines Simsboro DFC, and a 30,300 AFY limit on Simsboro pumping, at the November 12 GMA-12 meeting.  

Only Lee County directors Michael Simmang and Billy Sherrill, along with Aqua Water’s Bastrop County representative to the Board, voted against the reduction. 

GMA-12 compromised 

Instead of accepting Lost Pines’ request on November 12 for 183 feet of average drawdown in water levels, however, GMA-12 reached a compromise with Lost Pines. 

Lost Pines’ first motion for 183 feet of average drawdown was backed by the Post Oak Savannah district, but was voted down by Brazos Valley, Mid-East Texas and Fayette County. 

A second motion was adopted on a vote of four to one. The compromise motion resulted in a substitution of a new “pumping file” that would establish a Lost Pines DFC of 240 feet of average drawdown, instead of the proposed 311 feet. 

Andrew Wier, the SAWDF director who spearheaded SAWDF’s DFC campaign, characterized the GMA action as “only one step back”, because GMA-12mhad at least compromised in deference to Lost Pines.  

Wier also pointed out Lost Pines still has one more tool itmcan use to set more conservative DFC. 

10% margin of error 

The GMA-12 vote on November 12 finalized a single pumping file (S-19)  from which the GMA will calculate the average drawdown for each aquifer or formation in Lost Pines --Sparta, Queen City, Carrizo, Calvert Bluff, Simsboro, and Hooper. 

A wrinkle in how final DFC may be calculated assures that Lost Pines, if it chooses and without any approval by the GMA, may adjust the average drawdown in the Simsboro down from 240 feet to 216 feet, by using a plus or minus 10% margin of error prerogative built into the DFC process.  

Overall, this would lower the proposed 311 feet averagedrawdown by almost 100 feet, for a one-third reduction, Wier noted. 

Wier went on to say that hopefully a 10% reduction also will be made in Lost Pines’ Carrizo average drawdown, given the concern expressed by the Lost Pines board for local Carrizo wells.  

Next meetings 

The agendas for the upcoming GMA-12 meeting on November 30, and the regular Lost Pines board meeting on December 14 have not been set.  

However, Wier said he believes the 10% adjustment could be raised by GM Totten on November 30 without further board action, because Lost Pines has essentially already authorized Totten to seek a lesser drawdown than 240 feet. 

A side issue that has bubbled up at GMA-12 will probably not be settled soon, but is important. It involves to what degree member districts of a GMA should impose their demands on another district’s existing management plan, philosophy and policies, by dictating the district use more pumping than the district itself has determined it should use to set its DFC.