Fight over groundwater pits Bastrop land owners against LCRA

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BASTROP COUNTY (KXAN) — A water war is brewing in Bastrop County. Landowners and local groups are upset with a plan to pump and sell off more than 8 billion gallons of groundwater every year to the Lower Colorado River Authority.

Site of Griffith League Ranch, which the LCRA bought groundwater rights to in 2015.
Site of Griffith League Ranch, which the LCRA bought groundwater rights to in 2015.

Tuesday is the first of six days’ worth of evidentiary hearings to help decide whether the LCRA gets a permit to drill eight water wells on Griffith League Ranch. They would like to take water from the Simsboro formation of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer and deliver it to customers in eastern Travis, Lee and Bastrop counties.

“We have six days. We don’t have a minute longer than that,” a judge explained during the hearing Tuesday.

Attendees at the Bastrop Convention Center listening to a hearing over LCRA’s groundwater pumping application in Bastrop County. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

The LCRA is trying to prove to two administrative law judges in these hearings that LCRA’s permit application to pump and export this groundwater should be granted.

The water authority will face some challenges in making its case to the judges that it should be allowed to pump this water to the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District in Bastrop and Lee Counties.

At this hearing (which is being held at the Bastrop Convention Center), the City of Elgin, Aqua Water Supply Corporation, Recharge Water, LP, and a group of more than 30 landowners are represented, each protesting the LCRA’s application for this permit and sharing reasons why they feel the LCRA’s request as it’s currently written would impact them. Aqua Water Supply Corporation provides water to around 50,000 residents in a 953-square-mile rural area in and around Bastrop County.

Austin attorney Donald Grissom is representing that group of 30+ landowners, known as the “Brown Landowners.” Grissom peppered LCRA Vice President John Hoffman with questions in the cross-examination Tuesday regarding how the LCRA ran aquifer testing and how much the LCRA expected this pumping could impact groundwater in the area.

Hoffman testified that the LCRA doesn’t believe this plan would have an “unreasonable impact” on existing users of the groundwater or to the aquifer.

Hoffman explained during cross-examination that the LCRA could only sell the water generated by this groundwater pumping to Bastrop, Lee and Travis Counties.

Dozens of attendees filled up a majority of the chairs at the convention center to listen on to this hearing Tuesday.

Why landowners fear the LCRA’s pumping

Homeowners near that ranch are worried. Multiple groups have organized to oppose this plan. They rely on private wells and fear the LCRA’s pumping will cause their wells to run dry.

“Because it’s so huge the amount that they want to pump, it will take the water out of our water wells,” landowner Andy Wier said.

The 8.15 billion gallons of water the LCRA wants to pump out every year is enough water to fill Lady Bird Lake more than 3.5 times.

“The hydrologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority in his statement says many wells are going to run dry. My advice is that they dig a deeper well,” Wier said.

The LCRA declined to comment but has said in the past that it doesn’t think the pumping will impact anyone’s water. The LCRA says it has studied the issue but has not explained how it arrived at those results.

It also says many people in Bastrop County would benefit from this water but would not tell KXAN how many customers it serves in Bastrop County.

An attorney for the LCRA said in opening statements Tuesday, “you will hear some witnesses say LCRA is seeking special treatment. LCRA is not seeking special treatment. LCRA is seeking fair treatment.”

“We depend on our water wells,” Wier said. “We have no alternative. We’ve invested money in those wells and it provides water for our households. It provides water for our livestock, and it provides water for our farms and ranches.”

During the hearing Tuesday, Bastrop County landowner Elvis Hernandez was one of the parties protesting the LCRA’s permit application. Hernandez explained that the well on his property is his only source of water and that his well will experience a 42-foot draw-down under the proposed LCRA pumping. That amount, Hernandez says, represents 20% of his well’s pump depth.

Since Hernandez and his wife first heard about LCRA’s application for this permit 14 months ago, they have been trying to learn more about what their rights are as landowners.

“We learned the [Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation] District is under no obligation to protect my well,” he said. He added that there are no laws that protect landowners from taking the water from the aquifer underneath his property.

“I believe the district should compensate landowners for the groundwater being taken,” he said. ” The least LCRA could do is establish a mitigation fund for adverse impacts.”

An attorney for the city of Elgin explained the city believes it will be “significantly and unreasonably impacted” by the pumping plan the LCRA is currently proposing. The attorney explained that the city fears that if the LCRA’s permit is approved that Elgin’s wells would be impacted and that the city may wind up needing to purchase additional water supplies to offset the resources they’d lose to LCRA’s groundwater pumping.

These hearings are the culmination of more than a year of battles between the LCRA and private groups of homeowners and environmental advocates.

The administrative law judges will issue an opinion, but ultimately it will be up to the board of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District to decide whether to give the LCRA a permit.

An exhibit entered into evidence by the attorneys representing landowners protesting LCRA’s permit application. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).
An exhibit entered into evidence by the attorneys representing landowners protesting LCRA’s permit application. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard).

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