Keith Elliston’s well head is beneath the faded blue metal tank outside of the building. (Courtesy: Keith Elliston) 

LIBERTY HILL, Texas (KXAN) – Keith Elliston said he has spent thousands of dollars on his well after last year’s freeze. The work included insulation in his pump house. Elliston, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, said he’s now worried about his family’s water supply.

“My concerns are that at some point, we may not be able to get clean drinking water out of the ground because there’s no city lines or other methods for getting water,” Elliston explained.

He lives near a proposed rock crushing operation in Williamson County. Wilco Aggregates recently filed an application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for an air quality permit to operate on the Armadillo Ranch on County Road 284.

“My fear is that that our generation is the one that’s going to be the one that sees the aquifer go dry,” explained Travis Redding who shares Elliston’s concerns. “And then when my children are grown, there’s – there’s just no available water out here. They’ll pretty much – they will be inheriting worthless land.” 

No regulatory authority

The families get their water from the Trinity Aquifer. 

They told KXAN investigators in July that they worry the amount used by Wilco Aggregates could lead to water shortages. 

Harold Chapman, the owner of Wilco Aggregates, said in a statement to KXAN last month that most of the water used will come from ponds on the property and a well drilled to help limit dust, especially during dry periods. 

He added that a similar operation uses about 50,000 gallons of water a day. 

Williamson County has no regulatory authority over this type of operation. The homeowners said they believe that lack of oversight is drawing more of these businesses to the county.

“For us, it’s just having the supply. And it’s, you know, industries going in unregulated drawing out unlimited amounts of water, that is the biggest risk for us,” Elliston said. 

TCEQ data revealed Williamson County has 29 active rock crushers, more than any other nearby county.

According to TCEQ data, Williamson County has 29 active rock crushers, more than any other nearby county. According to the agency, Bastrop County has 3, Bell County 13, Burnet has 16, Lee County doesn’t have any, Milam County currently has 5 and Travis County 14. 

“It’s not surprising to me, I would like to say this, though, I understand the concern of our residents. And I wish by law, we don’t have the authority, but I wish by law, that county could have an input on where these crushers go,” explained Judge Bill Gravell with Williamson County. “We got to think about safety and security, right on the roads, people coming and going. Certainly, we need to be concerned about water, which is just not an endless resource anymore. But the truth is, counties have no input on that.”

Push for oversight 

Homeowners said they think the problem is that the county has no groundwater conservation district which regulates the spacing and production of water wells. They said having one would provide oversight on how these operations manage groundwater.

“It places additional stressors on the water supply, it has air quality challenges that it presents to us as nearby landowners. And ultimately, whether it’s a groundwater district or not… the water is limited, it’s going to be depleted at some point,” explained Elliston. 

Judge Gravell said the focus should be on the conservation of water. He explained that the county is exploring additional water resources. 

“I think to have a conversation about how we need to be good stewards of water is something we need to have. But I also would ask those same residents, do you understand that the groundwater conservation district you want to create as another taxing authority? And are you ready to pay higher property tax than you currently pay,” Gravell said. 

The Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, which manages groundwater in nearby Bell County, said for a home valued at $100,000 that tax responsibility would be $3.10 per year. The tax revenue is used for salaries, benefits, and research to better understand the aquifer system. 

The district said there is oversight and requirements for rock crushing operations to recapture and recycle water and there is a public hearing and in-depth analysis of water use before a permit is issued. 

A groundwater conservation district is created either by lawmakers, TCEQ or through a landowner petition procedure.

The homeowners in Liberty Hill are exploring options. TCEQ said it’s not pushing for one and it has no concerns about the water supply in Williamson County at this time. 

Growth driving operations in county 

Chapman declined an interview but, in an email, said the reason why operations like his are coming to the county is because of growth. 

“Because freight cost is directly related to the quarry site and job site it is cost prohibited to have a quarry in one county to feed any other counties. The need for quarries has nothing to do with the lack of groundwater districts,” Chapman explained. 

The area on the ranch used for the operation already has an existing rock-cutting quarry which the landowner, David Youngquist explained needs to be remediated from a previous quarry lease and includes pits and rock piles. 

The location of the proposed rock crushing operation is on the Armadillo Ranch in Williamson County. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

The lease would be for 7.5 years, and Youngquist added it would improve and preserve the ranch.

“Our family’s love of the ranch is strong. We want to use proceeds from the proposed quarrying operation to establish an endowment so that future generations will be able to maintain the ranch,” said Youngquist in an email. “I won’t put restrictions on what the next generation can do, but both my sister and I have strongly expressed our hope that the ranch remains intact and not sold to some developer who could plan a community with thousands of homes.”

He added that they recently turned down an offer to sell a portion of the ranch. 

“Imagine—2,000 homes spread across the ranch, each with a well into the Trinity Aquifer:  People washing clothes, taking baths, doing dishes, watering lawns, washing cars. I think this puts the water use of the proposed rock crushing operation into the correct perspective,” Youngquist explained. 

Public meeting date set

A public meeting about the proposed rock crushing operation will be on Monday, August 29 at 7 p.m. at the Shooting Star Ranch at 1704 County Road 285 Liberty Hill, Texas 78642. 

TCEQ said the focus of the meeting will be on air emissions and not issues regarding water. 

Elliston said he hopes they can have a conversation with Wilco Aggregates to get a better understanding of the operation.

“I’m a pro-business, free enterprise advocate, but doing that at the expense of people who have already invested in the land – have already… have an investment-backed expectation that we will have water for our livestock, for our homes, for our families, for the foreseeable future and we’ve got to protect that,” Elliston said. 

Elliston and Redding said there is also a lack of data that could provide a lot of insight. They’ll be pushing for additional research and studies of the aquifer.

“There’s not much data available on what kind of shape the aquifer is in,” Redding explained. “We need some serious hydrogeological studies so that we can determine exactly what the appropriate amount of water that can be taken out of the ground because right now we just don’t know.”