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Foster reports sale of huge Hays County

Friday, July 21, 2000 by

LCRA spokesman denies agreement to serve new tracts

Two large tracts of land in Northern Hays County have been sold for development of 900 homes and three golf courses, according to Erin Foster, Chair of the Hays County Water Planning Partnership. Foster told In Fact Daily Thursday night that she had received the information from Doug Combs, manager of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp. Combs, who is currently negotiating with the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) for back-up water for his customers, declined to comment on Foster’s statement.

Foster said Combs told her that two property owners—including former Texas Supreme Court Justice John L. Hill– sold a total of 2,600 acres to a developer who has been promised water from the LCRA’s proposed water line along Highway 290. A search of the Hays County Central Appraisal District’s on-line records shows that John L. Hill owns property valued at more than $5.3 million within the boundaries of the Dripping Springs Independent School District. One 410-acre parcel was appraised at $1, 221,870, or just under $3,000 per acre. However, one knowledgeable Hays County resident said the land should be worth at least twice that amount.

In addition to Hill’s property, Foster said the unnamed developer had purchased the Hazy Hills Ranch—estimated to be about 1,500 acres.“Both of those have been told they will get water from the LCRA pipeline,” Foster said. She said she had driven by the property and observed survey stakes, adding to her belief that what Combs had told her was true.

Foster said,“ John Hill’s property has access onto RR 12, North of (Dripping Springs) elementary school. It connects to Hazy Hills Ranch, which has 1500 acres along 290 and heading North.” Little Barton Creek, which turns into Barton Creek, runs across the property.

Robert Cullick, executive manager of communications and corporate strategy for the LCRA, said, “We have two processes underway. One is a discussion of backup water for Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp., and one is to be the entity that serves the Hays County Water and Sewer Authority.

“The primary area we’re looking at right now is the Sunset Canyon subdivision. Anybody else would have to be under the provisions of the MOU (memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). It would have to comply with the SOS-type rules and it would have to come in unsubdivided areas.”

In addition, Cullick said, any new development would have to wait until the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process is complete,” under LCRA’s agreement with USF&W. Cullick said rules for development—which may take two years to complete—“could become more stringent” as a result of the EIS.

Cullick said he knows "Some subdivisions in Hays County are already telling people that they’re going to get service from LCRA.” Cullick said LCRA has not yet entered into a contract with the Hays County Water and Sewer Authority and the authority cannot make promises on behalf of the LCRA. “If somebody is saying that LCRA has committed itself to (a new development), that’s not true.” He said the water agency’s only firm commitment is to the Sunset Canyon subdivision. He said that Sunset Canyon residents have until August 11 to send $500 per household in order to secure LCRA water. The agency has asked for a commitment from 80 percent of the neighborhood. “We think we’ll get 80 percent out there. We have indications these people are more than happy to commit. (The water situation) has not changed. It’s only gotten worse.”

Foster remains unconvinced that the LCRA will do the right thing, which to the HCWPP means serving only existing developments in need, like Sunset Canyon. " What we’ve said all along is that this thing needs to be planned or existing residents will get bypassed and new residents will get the water."

In a letter written hastily and received by In Fact Daily at 11 p.m. Thursday, Foster writes, "While both LCRA and the Hays County Commissioners Court appear to be knights in shining armor by coming to the rescue of the residents of Sunset Canyon, they have not been open about the rest of the cards they hold in their poker hand. Hays County Commissioners Court declared a "drought emergency" for the Sunset Canyon neighborhood and the LCRA stepped up plans to rush the construction of a large water pipeline to the area. Who could guess that was not the only ace they were holding?…The other aces they hold include several massive new developments that will use the LCRA waterline to develop. First, there is the County Development District #1, which was created by the Commissioners court last January. It boasts that it will have 300+ "high end" homes, a golf course and a hotel/convention center off RR12 south of Dripping Springs. The Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission water and wastewater application shows that they will need 147 million gallons of water for this venture."

Craig Smith, BSEACD President, tries to keep

Positive outlook on future of aquifer, Barton Creek

But Smith says district 'perilously close' to critical drought stage

The 45,000 people who depend on the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer for their drinking water want to believe that the long-term prognosis for their aquifer—and thus, Barton Springs—is positive.

One man who is working to make this a reality is Craig Smith, new president of the board of the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD). Smith, an Austin bankruptcy and business lawyer who moved to Austin in 1973, previously served as president of the Save Barton Creek Association during 1996 and1997. He was voted in as the BSEACD's board president in May and serves as the representative for the conservation district's precinct 5, the area west of Manchaca Road that includes the Circle C Ranch and Barton Hills.

Smith acknowledges that the Edwards Aquifer is still in fairly good shape, but he can only hazard a guess as to how long people can depend on it as a clean source of drinking water. “I don't think the protection of the aquifer is a hopeless enterprise; properly conserved and protected the aquifer can still be meeting the area's water needs for 50 years . . . I hope for another hundred years," he says.

On the flip side, the BSEACD has yet to come up with a model that defines what Smith calls the "safe yield" margin. In other words, how many tens of millions of gallons of water a year can dependably be drawn from the aquifer without irreparably depleting it.

The magic number is elusive, but Smith promises this question will be studied and answered by the district before too long. Once "sustainable yield" is determined, the BSEACD will have a scientific basis for defining how much use is too much. This in turn—depending on rainfall levels—could lead to plac-ing restrictions on the total amount of water that can be withdrawn in a given year.

The answer will ultimately have significant bearing on area water customers, as the Edwards Aquifer furnishes a significant share of Austin’s water. The rest, regulated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, comes from the Highland Lakes. Preserving the quantity and exceptionally good quality of Edwards Aquifer water is a top priority for the city.

The BSEACD board recently sent a lengthy resolution to the Lower Colorado River Regional Water Planning Group outlining various future aquifer management strategies. The planning group, also known as Region K, is one of 16 regional groups that have been by the Legislature with developing 50-year water management plans. These plans are to be the basis for a comprehensive State water plan, possibly as soon as next year. The Region K group includes Austin, Travis County and 11 other counties that lie along the Colorado River from San Saba to Matagorda.

It is vital that local water management plans be submitted to the regional group for inclusion in the regional plan; otherwise there is a risk of not being counted in future water enhancement projects. And it has already been determined by Region K planners that northern Hays County—primarily Buda and Dripping Springs—will run 3,694 acre-feet short of water by the year 2050, unless measures are taken to augment the water supply.

In its resolution, the BSEACD board laid out several prospective projects to ensure the aquifer will be able to keep up with area demands. Among them are two surface water reservoirs along Onion Creek at unspecified sites near Driftwood and Dripping Springs. Smith says that proposals for reservoirs and small flood control dams along Onion Creek have been made in the past, but he notes that it will take considerably more study to determine their eco-nomic and environmental feasibility. While the resolution devotes four paragraphs to the concept of reservoirs along Onion Creek, it also proposes exploring recharge enhancements along all creeks within the district's boundaries.

Finally, the resolution gives a nod to the LCRA's controversial surface water pipeline into groundwater-dependent north Hays County and Dripping Springs. At the same time, it warns against its potential to encourage too much new development, consequently threatening the quality and balance of the aquifer.

For the long haul, Smith remains optimistic that saving the aquifer from the damage that inevitably comes from too much development will not become an exercise in futility. "I think (the environmental safeguards) are here to stay," he says. "It's simply recognizing the limits of the natural system we depend on." The aquifer board voted 3-0-1 for the resolution, with Board Member Don Turner abstaining and Board Member Bill Welch absent.

Late Thursday, Smith noted that the aquifer is “perilously close to the critical drought stage.” He said two wells show that water levels have dropped below what the district had previously defined as a critical level. The Buda test well, for example was at 551.1 feet on July 4. Smith said it is likely that the well has dropped even further since then, with hot weather and no rainfall.

The critical drought stage, defined by the drought of the 1950s, set the critical level at 550.7 feet. On July 4, 1999, the Buda well stood at 572.1 feet, or about 21 feet above where it is now. According to records from the BSEACD, the critical drought stage for the San Leanna test well is 505.9 feet. Smith noted that “an event related to extraordinary pumping” had reduced the well to the critical stage on May 15. He said he did not know what happened on that day, but the well had rebounded to 528.7 feet on July 5. On July 5, 1999, that same well stood at 568.1 feet, according to district records.

Shea launches green consulting practice…Brigid Shea, former city council member and Save Our Springs Alliance leader, says she is now consulting for high tech firms. Shea says she will initially focus on helping her clients understand environmental and community concerns revolving around site relocation decisions. Shea and Robin Rather have already helped Tivoli, Motorola and Computer Sciences Corp. avoid environmental battles by encouraging them to locate away from the Barton Springs watershed. Shea has establised a consulting relationship with Loomis Austin, an environmental, planning and engineering firm. She said her firm name is now Brigid Shea & Associates…Some applicants… The City of Austin's Environmental Board needs four more members. Candy Parham, the city's boards and commissions coordinator, said she has received one new application for the board from Sean Garretson, a planner with the LCRA. Parham said she has had other applications on file since last year. Those applications are from James Collett, with Water and Wastewater Department ; Matt Dozier with Texas Parks and Wildlife; Donald Money, an attorney with Texas State Senate; and Michael Simmons-Smith, associate engineer with Garrett Engineering.George "Buzz" Avery has not yet re-applied, but his application is expected… Donna Carter, an architect planner for Carter Design, has applied for the Robert Mueller planning implementation committee… New small city politicians… Citizens for a Better Wimberley is having “an evening with the candidates,” for the the group's endorsed candidates Tuesday night 6-8 p.m., at the home of Marilee Wood and Tevis Grinstead, 111 Lazy L Those endorsed by the group include: Linda Hewlett for mayor; and Martha Knies, Walter Brown, Matt Manis, Tony McGee, and Steve Klepfer.

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