2021 a busy year for water
Important issues have been flowing (pun intended) onto Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District’s plate ever since 2018, when the Lower Colorado River Authority applied for its still-pending export permit.
The Lost Pines District resumed its final permit hearing for the LCRA application on July 14th, held its "workshop" to educate Board members on the Desired Future Conditions (DFC) process on July 21, and then voted on whether to yank Gatehouse's permit (formerly, the "Forestar" permit) later that same July 21st evening.
But the drama didn't end there. The LCRA hearing was unexpectedly continued for a second time, there is public opposition to the proposed DFCs, and the board's vote on July 21 to yank the Gatehouse permit was called into question by Lexington real estate broker and apparent Gatehouse investor, Garry Brown.
Lee County well failures continue
Andrew Wier, a director of the Simsboro Aquifer Water Defense Fund (SAWDF), is one of the landowners challenging the LCRA permit.
He said the Lost Pines Board has already set aside $500,000 in 2021 to help repair domestic and livestock wells in northeast Lee County. Numerous wells started drying up last year, soon after the Vista Ridge project began pumping for San Antonio in Burleson County.
Reports of additional Lee County well failures continue to come into SAWDF, while the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, the permitting authority for Vista Ridge, reports servicing fifty wells so far in the fourteen-month period Vista Ridge has been pumping.
LCRA hearing reconvened in Bastrop
The final permit hearing for LCRA began on January 28, 2021 with public comment and a round of oral argument before the board decided to continue the hearing to consider what they had heard that evening.
On July 14, a large audience gathered in the Bastrop Convention Center’s main ballroom for the resumption of the Lost Pinesdistrict’s final permit hearing for LCRA. Only six of ten board members answeredthe roll call, including Lee County Director Mike Simmang who was pictured on the “jumbotron” screen from a remote location.
Six board members are required for a quorum. At least six directors must vote in favor of any formal action on the LCRA permit, because three board members are ineligible to vote because they, or their employer, are formal protestants of the permit.
Lee County director Larry Schatte is eligible to vote but did not answer the roll call on July 14, either in person or remotely.
Hearing ends abruptly
Under its pending application to pump 25,000 acre-feet annually from the Simsboro aquifer in Bastrop County, LCRA wants a permit that would allow use of the water in Bastrop and Lee counties, but also allow deliveryof all eight billion gallons a year to Travis County, most likely along SH-130.
Lawyers for five protestants apparently were not told until July 10 to be ready to argue three specific issues at the July 14 hearing.
The issues included the potential for “waste” if theColorado River could be used to transport groundwater; the requirement of a 36-hour pump test, when to conduct the test, and how to use the results; and whether any permit issued to LCRA should be reduced to no more than 6,000 to 10,000 acre-feet per year.
After oral arguments on the first two issues by a bevy oflawyers, the district’s attorney Greg Ellis unexpectedly called a halt, and took the board into a private executive session to advise them.
Forty-five minutes later, the board emerged to announce they were quitting for the night, in favor of a second continuance of the hearing.
District counsel told the audience that Lee County director Larry Schatte had joined the executive session, apparently remotely.
District Board has last word
Issuance of the permit was litigated for six days before two administrative law judges from the State Office of Administrative Hearings in Fall 2019.
In early 2020, the judges recommended that the district, as the final decision-maker, issue the full 25,000 acre-feet/year permit.They recommended refinements to the draft permit for the full amount, recommended to the district in 2018 by district General Manager, Jim Totten.
SAWDF and landowners continue opposition
Don Grissom, a principal in the Austin law firm of Grissom& Thompson, L.P., argued Wednesday night as counsel for the so-called“Brown Landowners”, the Bastrop and Lee county landowners who banded together to formally protest the permit, with the assistance of SAWDF.
Over one hundred landowners initially opposed the permit, with over forty of them admitted as parties to the contested case hearing. More details about the LCRA proposed permit can be found on SAWDF’s website, www.simsborowaterdefensefund.org.
Desired Future Conditions planning ongoing
Wier noted the Lost Pines board also has to decide this year how much drawdown in our aquifers to allow over the next five years, as part of the so-called “Desired Future Conditions” or “DFC” process.
Wier said the deeper drawdowns proposed in March 2021, by Lost Pines and other groundwater conservation districts in Groundwater Management Area 12 (GMA-12), should be rejected for protecting only big pumpers, at the expense of numerous household and domestic wells, and the Colorado River. The river system needs groundwater to augment its flows, especially during drought.
SAWDF, Environmental Stewardship, SAWDF's partner in the coalition dubbed "WaterDefenders.org", and Bastrop-based non-profit League of Independent Voters have organized opposition among landowners, conservationists, and the residents of local rural communities in the five member-districts of GMA-12.
The Lost Pines board held a public workshop on the DFC process at the Giddings Public Library on Wednesday, July 21, followed by their monthly board meeting at 7 p.m. Gary Westbrook, the general manager of the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, attended the workshop as a "resource" for the board, since Post Oak GCD was the only district in GMA-12 to vote against the proposed DFC in March.
The Lost Pines board set its own public hearing to receive public comment on the proposed DFC for August 18, in lieu of its regular August hearing. The hearing was first set for the Giddings Public Library but later changed to the Bastrop Convention Center at 6 p.m., after Linda Curtis of the League of Independent Voters cautioned the district to expect a larger crowd.
Board votes to reduce Gatehouse permit to zero production
The July 21 regular board meeting agenda included whether to reduce the permitted pumping of the Gatehouse Water LLC’s permit (successor to the Forestar permit), which has been left pending for several months.
Earlier this year, Gatehouse had presented to the district what purported to be a "water supply contract" for a one-year term, renewable for thirty years, with Central Texas Water Supply Corporation, for the consideration of $1.
Lee County SAWDF board member and attorney Michele Gangnes said she found the alleged "water supply contract" to be little more than a one-year option to buy water, which does not satisfy the "spirit or the letter" of the requirements of Special Condition 8 of the 2016 Gatehouse permit:
(8) Beginning no later than the fifth (5th) anniversaryof the date of issuance of the Permit, Permittee shall have a binding contract orcontracts to provide at least 12,000 acre-feet of water per year to one or more End Users in one or more authorized places of use. If Permittee does not have such a contract or contracts, then the aggregated annual withdrawal amount in this Permit shall be automatically reduced to the amount for which Permittee has a binding contract or contracts, and the General Manager is authorized to issue an amendment to this Permit reflecting the reduced amount.
On a 9-0 vote, the board voted to determine Gatehouse had not satisfied its special permit condition that required Gatehouse to enter into a binding water supply contract for at least 12,000 acre-feet/year within five years of the issuance of the permit.
Under the permit, failure to satisfy that condition should result in a reduction of permitted pumping to whatever amount was contracted for, in this case "zero", said Gangnes.
Two additional motions carried that effectiverly denied additional Gatehouse requests to, in part, give Gatehouse a two-year extension to satisfy the permit condition. Those votes passed 8-1, with the dissenting vote cast by David Fleming, Aqua Water Supply's representative on the board.
Lee County board member Herb Cook recused himself from all three votes because he owns land that would be affected by the Gatehouse permit.
Board overlooks public comment on Gatehouse
Prior to calling for any vote, the board had retired to executive session to receive legal advice on the Gatehouse permit. After returning and voting on the three motions, the board continued with the remainder of its agenda.
Just prior to adjourning the meeting, board president Mike Talbot advised the audience that Garry Brown had signed up to speak on the Gatehouse agenda item prior to the executive session, but was overlooked by Talbot (and presumably staff who typically manage the sign-in sheets for the president).
Talbot apologized, and invited Brown to give his remarks at that point in the meeting.
A visibly angry Brown refused to deliver his prepared remarks, but instead elected to loudly accuse and rebuke the board several times for "taking his property rights" with the Gatehouse vote. He seemed to allege the "taking" amounted to a $10 million interest in the Gatehouse project, but it wasn't clear if he were claiming his own investment amounted to $10 million.
The well-attended meeting was adjourned shortly after he stormed out of the meeting.
Board to reconsider Gatehouse vote July 27
On July 23, Lost Pines published notice of a specially called virtual board meeting on July 27 at 7 p.m., for the purpose of receiving public comment, and having the board reconsider and take possible action regarding the Board’s July 21, 2021 decisions on the Gatehouse permit.
Show the Lost Pines board you support their first decision on Gatehouse by attending this virtual meeting!
THE AGENDA AND INSTRUCTIONS FOR REMOTE PARTICIPATION AND ATTENDANCE VIA THE PUBLICLY ACCESSIBLE WEBINAR LINK OR TELEPHONE CONFERENCE CALL are found here.
Please note that in order to give public comment, the district asks you to call them at 512-360-5088 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org before NOON on July 27 if you wish to make either general public comment or comment on a specific agenda item.
Post Oak Savannah GCD holds Alcoa hearing same day
The Lost Pines board probably is also monitoring Alcoa, Inc.’s recent announcement of plans to supply water from its holdings in Milam and Lee counties to growth areas on the I-35 corridor. The hearing on Alcoa's bid for an amended permit to allow municipal use of its wells and a new export permit to allow use of its water in Lee, Travis, Williamson and Bell counties, in addition to local use in Milam County, is scheduled virtually for 3:00 p.m. on July 27. Go here for information on attending, and to see important documents to explain Alcoa's application.
Alcoa holds northwest Lee County permits for about 3,850 acre-feet per year in the Simsboro.
The San Antonio Water System claims to have another 15,000 acre-feet of Simsboro water rights around the Three Oaks mine site, and Manville Water Supply applied for new Lee County permits in the Hooper aquifer that lies under the Simsboro earlier in 2021. However, on July 21, the Lost Pines general manager announced Manville has withdrawn its application, which was contested in June by the City of Hutto.