Central Texas Meeting on the Water War
Sponsored by Bluebonnet Electric
A meeting took place on Wednesday, March 18th, sponsored by Bluebonnet Electric Coop at the Lost Pines Hyatt Regency Resort in Cedar Creek. To see the line up of speakers at this meeting click here State Highway 130 Meeting Hosted by Bluebonnet Electric. These are the folks whose day jobs involve circling the great Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer — the aquifer that feeds millions of Texans from NE Texas through the heart of Texas, down to the Mexican border. The counties that could be most dramatically affected by decisions discussed at this meeting are Bastrop, Lee, Caldwell, Burleson, and Milam over to Brazos (Bryan-College Station) – they are the counties that cover the outcrop of the Carrizo-Wilcox, and specifically the Simsboro portion of the aquifer.
Independent Texans conducted this interview with Phil Cook, a Lost Pines Sierra Club member, local business owner and community activist who was an invited guest at the meeting. Phil has a deep understanding of water issues, is a strong conservationist and has been working with us to help educate our membership about water issues.
Background: Last year there was a great outcry from Bastrop and Lee county residents against a move by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s and private water marketers’ planned “Simsboro Pipeline” project to transport at least 56,000 acre feet per year (AFY) of water to the 130 Corridor, and then on to Hays and Bexar counties. The Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA) is a quasi-governmental entity, similar to LCRA and the Brazos River Authority in our area. The Vice-Chair of the GBRA, Clifton Thomas, gave Gov. Rick Perry a $251,000 donation for his most recent campaign, just before being appointed by the Governor to the Texas A&M Board of Regents, historically one of the most prolific sources of the Governor’s campaign contributions. (For more information on the Bastrop-Lee County pipeline deal go here.).
The Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District that covers Lee and Bastrop counties has invoked a moratorium on permitting for large water projects since 2010. They are expressing great concern about the over-drafting of the aquifer. However, the Texas Water Development Board (all six Rick Perry appointees) granted $2.5 million for preliminary studies for the project. The water war over the Simsboro continues and is the backdrop of the meeting about which we report.
Indy Texans Summary: This was a meeting of developers and related interests who are on opposite sides in the water war over piping massive amounts of water from the Simsboro portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer underlying Bastrop, Lee counties and Burleson counties. What they do seem to agree on is that the Simsboro has lots of water, and they all want as much of it as they can get. Bill West, Executive Director of GBRA, was on the panel, and argued that there is plenty of water to go around and that local developers who have planned projects to the east of Austin near the 130 Corridor, shouldn’t fret. (See a map here of the "State Participation Pipeline" — that's it's new name.)
Our best read on this meeting is that Mark Rose, Bluebonnet Electric General Manager, convened the meeting for the purpose of conveying the message to GBRA that there, in fact, isn’t enough water to go around and local developers get first dibs.
It’s great to have local developers in on the fight to stop the pipeline to send our water far and wide to fuel growth along the I-35 Corridor and turn it into the next Metroplex. They can count on our support.
But when we kill this pipeline project, there remains a question. Will local developers work with this community to ensure that we do not have unfettered growth, the costs for which are shouldered by current residents?
Bastrop, Lee and other nearby counties’ residents and local businesses want to be at the table, no matter who the players are. They want to, among other things, protect the local groundwater supply as the backbone of our own communities’ vitality — to make sure the cost of growth for one community is not passed on to anyother community by stripping them of the water needed for their own economic prosperity. You might watch this 14 minute video of Brian Rodgers of ChangeAustin.org presented at the Water Wars Conference in March for the proof of Austin’s efforts to off-load the costs of growth onto current residents and how citizens are fighting back.
Interview with Phil Cook:
Indy Texans: You attended the May 18th meeting hosted by Bluebonnet Electric Coop with various interests involved in the effort to transport water from the Simsboro portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer underlying Bastrop and Lee County. What was the purpose of this meeting?
Cook: The thrust of the meeting is about whether the Highway 130 Corridor (just east of Austin) will either be a “train wreck or an opportunity” – as stated by Mark Rose, Bluebonnet’s General Manager. There is an underlying assumption that there will be development east of Austin, built and financed by MUDs.
(Indy Texans Note: Municipal Utility Districts are state created entities that have the right to float bonds to support development. Once the developments are somewhat built out, they can become a more formal entity; they often become part of adjacent cities, which assume their remaining bond debt, or become townships or independent communities, with the residents assuming the remaining bond debt, or they can remain in the hands of the developers.)
To my mind, Rose wanted to lay out the scope of the coming development in the Highway 130 Corridor, show how disorganized the proposed development is currently (developers often do not communicate with each other), and then to indirectly address the major question: Where is the water for all this to come from? The Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer was the only discussed source of this water, and was portrayed as practically limitless, especially by Bill West of GBRA.
Indy Texans: What would this “train wreck” look like – what are they really talking about?
Cook:The underlying assumption of all speakers was that development of the 130 Corridor will happen. The train wreck would be if several nearby developments were built at the same time, leading to overcapacity, or if each development is forced to compete for the same water supply, thus driving up the price, or forced to compete with each other for state or city road funds to connect developments to major roadways, etc. From Bluebonnet Electric’s point of view, development is apparently desirable, and coordinated development makes it easier to plan electric service. Essentially, coordination would mean that the development is done efficiently and, perhaps, with fewer missed opportunities.
Indy Texans: Is that your idea of the “train wreck” or is it something worse than bungled or missed development opportunities?
Cook: To me, the train wreck – unless citizens intervene – is that the Carrizo-Wilcox will be depleted because, in fact, there isn’t enough water to go around, and developers will not back down from their projects. There is no evil intent there, it’s just that is how developers make money and, as good business people, profit is what drives them. That may or may not work in the best interests of residents, the consumers of their developments, especially when what is at stake is the local water supply.
Indy Texans: So, what precisely is the problem with that?
Cook: All the studies and polls in the area show that one of the foremost things folks want in Bastrop County is to preserve the county’srural character, allowing smaller businesses, farmers and ranchers to prosper, and to in turn benefit the newcomers with affordable goods and services. If they had been asked, I expect citizens of surrounding counties, whose water supply is at risk, would say much the same thing, even if they do support economic development and growth.
Indy Texans: But isn’t growth just an inevitability?
Cook: Yes and no. Yes, we cannot stop growth. But growth can wind up costing regions much more than what is gained economically for a region – because in Texas water is becoming a precious commodity. The “growth for growth’s sake” mentality makes for backward and very costly planning mistakes — their planning assumes they will build for maximum growth, on the assumption they’re going to be able to get all the water they need from the aquifer, instead of determining first how much water can be sustainably drawn from the aquifer to maintain the aquifer for future generations and then planning development in this context. An aquifer, and the growth that depends on it, needs a “water budget” that limits demand by first determining the actual sustainable supply of water as accurately as possible, not a system geared to overdrafting the aquifer’s“bank account”.
Indy Texans: So, are residents anti-development?
Cook: Most are not. Residents just want it done right and to not be overwhelmed by it. Intensive development along 130 could take up all the ranch farmland to the east of the corridor. East-west transportation corridors along 130 already exist. The huge, unaddressed problem is that there is very little water under the land to be developed! Providing water to the 130 corridor means that the Carrizo-Wilcox, to its east, will be drained, eventually making the land above the drained Carizzo-Wilcox arid.
Indy Texans: What does the drought have to do with this?
Cook: Bastrop, Lee, Milam and Burleson counties are all in various degrees of intense drought. Lee County, for example, is one of the three driest counties in the state. Milam and Burleson might be getting some rain – but the Carrizo, whether we’re in a drought or not, is threatened because this is a slow-to-recharge aquifer. It takes 2,000 years for the Carrizo-Wilcox to recharge – so in this way, it’s very unlike the Edwards Aquifer, west and southwest of Austin, which recharges quickly – when there’s enough rain. If the Texas drought of the 1950’s occurred today or in future, the explosion of population since then would make the effects of drought, on groundwater as well as surface water, exponentially worse.
Indy Texans: What is the status of the Carrizo-Wilcox in the Bastrop and Lee county area, where the marketers, and their allies in state government, seem to be continuing their plan to heavily exploit that region’s groundwater?
Cook: According to Joe Cooper, the General Manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, our aquifer is in good shape. However, the regional water planning and management groups that cover Milam, Burleson, Lee and Brazos counties, among many others, seem determined to serve the aquifer up on a platter to marketers, resulting in the setting of unreasonably high availability numbers and intolerable drawdown projections (so-called “desired future conditions”) that residents are being told they have to accept. As a result, if the water marketers have their way, we should see, in Bastrop County, at least a 150-foot drawdown by the year 2060. In northern Lee County we could see a drawdown of much more than that – 250-300 feet in the Simsboro aquifer. In Milam and Burleson, they’re liable to have 300-400 foot draw down, and perhaps a 600- foot drawdown in some areas.
(Indy Texans Note: The Simsboro is an artesian aquifer – it operates under some pressure. “Drawdowns” means reduced artesian pressure in the aquifer, lower well water levels, and ultimately the “‘dewatering,” “overdrafting,” or “mining” of the aquifer – that is, the level of water in the Simsboro Aquifer would drop below the top of the aquifer. The bottom line is that drawdowns of this magnitude would result in extensive dewatering and depressurization of the Simsboro Aquifer by the year 2060, or even earlier.)
Indy Texans: What is the current status of the deal? How did this meeting impact on that, in your opinion?
Cook: Certainly, deals have been struck between developers and various water marketers; you don’t make plans like this without water, or electric service. Many of these projects are still conceptual, and have not broken ground, but pipelines already exist for others. Developers always talk about their projects as if they were foregone conclusions, whereas they always have many important details to work out. Ultimately, customers must buy into the developments and go live/work there. They are expensive and require affluent customers and a robust economy. Some of these projects call for many thousands of housing units and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail/commercial space. Are there enough affluent customers available and willing to buy? That’s a big question.
Indy Texans: What exactly is GBRA’s role in this, what’s their interest?
Cook: GBRA is trying to set itself up as the go-to place for water, pushing for a state-financed, 60-inch water main from the Simsboro to the 130 and I-35 corridors to serve developers and municipalities, from Williamson County to San Antonio. Most of this is still unsettled, but it doesn’t mean GBRA and other marketers will wait for others to fill in the voids, and certainly, they will not voluntarily scale back, without intense pressure brought to bear on their decision-making. All marketers seek the opportunity of going for the maximum supply they can get, sooner rather than later, before the brakes are put on by Mother Nature, if not by enlightened government and citizens. Bill West was quoted in the Austin-American Statesman in 2009 as saying, “If GBRA were to wait till all the ramifications were sorted out, somebody else will have gotten the water."
Indy Texans: What is the current status of the water deals involving Bastrop, Lee, Milam, Burleson, Brazos and surrounding counties? How did this meeting impact on that, in your opinion?
Cook: Last December, the Texas Water Development Board granted $2.5 million for feasibility studies by GBRA. Local mapping for the project was given out in packets at this meeting. The maps show a network of existing and proposed pipelines, anchored by the so-called Simsboro pipeline, the 60-inch pipeline that will feed the whole system. (Go here to see the maps.)
The importance of this pipeline is that it will run from W. Burleson County just north of Lee County. It’s going to run from the northeast to the southwest, near Elgin, near city of Bastrop, and parallel to Hwy. 21 down to San Marcos. It then hits the 130 & IH-35 corridors to New Braunfels, extending to San Antonio.
A 5-foot pipeline will be fed by all the water marketers who continue to target Lee, Bastrop, Milam and Burleson counties. Some of those water marketers are: Four Star in Lee County, Endop, Blue Water, which already has a permit for 71,000 feet that will go through Manor, Heart of Texas with a permit for 5,000 acre feet of water they‘ll take from northern Lee County to Hutto. In Milam County, Alcoa is in negotiations with GBRA to sell the water under their played-out Sandow lignite mine in Milam and Lee counties to GBRA (the same 54,000 AFY Alcoa tried to sell San Antonio ten years ago). Then you have Plum Creek marketers in Caldwell County, south of Lockhart, and the San Jose Water Corporation, now Texas Water Alliance, in western Gonzales.
Indy Texans: That last name is a good one – sounds kind of like a community organization.
Cook: Hardly.Texas Water Alliance is a subsidiary of a California water corporation, and has signed a letter of intent with GBRA to work exclusively together to explore development and delivery options in “service areas,” which means the 130 and I-35 corridors. And all these guys intend to pump in the Carrizo–Wilcox, and then head for the 130 Corridor and beyond.
Indy Texans: What exactly came out of this meeting?
Cook: The developers and water marketers want more certainty and want to see if there can be a meeting of the minds. The huge gorilla is the fight between the marketers, against the residents,municipalities, and businesses east of 130 who already depend on the Carizzo-Wilcox, including folks in Caldwell and Gonzales. If the marketers get their way, all of these folks eventually will have to buy back their water, get it somewhere else, or do without. In the meantime, water supply will become more and more expensive for those in local areas who either already pay for their water, or have their own, soon to be endangered, water wells.
Indy Texans: What is Bluebonnet’s interest in this?
Cook: Bluebonnet, as the electricity supplier, provides electricity in a large area east of IH-35. They’re assuming that there will be development; in fact, it is a focal point of their current “Sustainable Grid” initiative, therefore, they’d like to see more compact development in their 14-county service area to more easily facilitate their marketing of electricity. They may even be in favor of fairly intensive development. There’s no evil intent there either, but again, the issue is whether there’s enough water for intensive development, by anyone.
Indy Texans: What are your thoughts about the availability issue – is there enough water to go around?
Cook: I don’t believe there is, particularly if you want to preserve local farming in the blackland prairie. Right now, the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District covering Burleson and Milam counties is a huge problem. They have already over-permitted their groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox, and they’re probably going to be asked to permit the Alcoa water from Milam County, as the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District only has jurisdiction over the Lee County portion of the Sandow Mine water.
These marketers need to hear from the folks who fought the Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) to protect the blackland prairie. These pipelines, in fact, are just a holdover from the water pipelines that were part of the original TTC project, a project that citizens so thoroughly discredited.
In Bastrop and Lee Counties, existing water wells are already slowly depleting the underlying aquifers; if more water is taken (and there are plans to take far more water than is presently being used) the depletion will greatly increase. And so far, none of the developers have exhibited the foresight to be concerned about the adverse effects of groundwater depletion on surface water. Streams and lakes are fed by groundwater, and vice versa –pumping excessive volumes of groundwater leads to diminished flow to rivers and streams, and to the cessation of spring flow.
As far as groundwater depletion is concerned, many people don’t know this, but the blackland prairie is composed of some of the rarest, and richest, soil in the world – only 2% of the earth’s surface has it. It is to be guarded and preserved with all our might.
Indy Texans: What did our nemesis, Bill West of the GBRA have to tell us?
Cook: West laid out his proposals for where he wanted to build his distribution system of pipelines. There are two issues here. If the pipelines get built as they’ve envisioned, the developers in the region due east of Austin not only don’t need it, they don’t want it. Why? Because they want the water for themselves. The 130 pipeline would enable the water to go further south, to Hays and Comal counties, and to San Antonio. They understand there’s not enough to go around.
West, of course, was there to claim that there’s so much water there, that this will satisfy everyone’s needs. His evidence for this was pretty scurrilous. He tried to make the claim that because Alcoa had been pumping for 50 years in the area, with no problem, then there’s ‘nothing to worry about.’ Well, I followed the Alcoa controversy pretty closely and I know that many domesticwells were adversely affected around Alcoa,
Alcoa pumped for mining purposes, and usednowhere near the quantities sought by GBRA and others. If Alcoa had sold 54,000 AFY to San Antonio a decade ago, studies by the Bureau of Economic Geology and a study commissioned by Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District showed drawdowns — dewatering and depressurization of the aquifer– by 2050, or even earlier, in the same range as are being set today as the “desired future conditions” for our area. Bill West must have read Alcoa and San Antonio’s study which showed drawdowns of only 90 feet, not 400 feet!
GBRA, like the other marketers, wants to put a huge amount of supply on the books now, so that it will be more difficult to cut them back later — a 60-inch pipeline won’t operate properly unless it is under the pressure of a “full tank” of water at all times.
If this is West’s shining example of “no harm,” then he’s selling snake oil, as he certainly knows the truth!
Indy Texans: What are your thoughts about what we need to be doing as a community to support more local control of groundwater?
Cook: I support Independent Texans’ plan that is focused, right now, on gathering our forces for when we can really do something about it. I hope everyone keeps circulating the online petition and gets hooked up with the organization that is bringing folks together across party lines – water affects every single one of us, no matter what our party or ideology. Sierra Club and others, of course, are monitoring closely what actions might provide openings for litigation, and for regulatory intervention.
Indy Texans: That petition can be circulated online here or printed out here, then mailed back to us. Thanks Phil!