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County commissioners discuss ways to save organic farm

Monday, March 9, 2009 by Jacob Cottingham

Travis County Commissioners last week heard three hours of presentations on how county pumps were drying up wells on Tecolote Farm, one of the region’s most popular and successful organic farms, and what the county could do to remedy the situation.

 

Commissioners called the special work session specifically to address the farm’s declining water table, which has been exacerbated by the 2007 installation of two high capacity county pumps servicing East Metro Park. The farm, owned by Katie and David Pitre, is located near FM 969 and SH 130.

 

The Pitres proposed that the county could lay pipes from its wells to the farm and supply water for free or at a nominal sum, or the county could build or fund a new well and run pipes from that to the farm. But three commissioners indicated to In Fact Daily that legal complications would likely prohibit the county from being able to supply the farm with water.

 

Some 30 people, a mix of county staff and concerned citizens, filled the courtroom to hear firms retained by the county and the Pitres give various hydrological reports. The firms all seemed to agree that the county wells were part of the problem, although the two small wells on the farm seem to be cursed with a poor location and well depth.  After those presentations, Katie Pitre tried to testify, but got upset and was unable to continue.

 

One solution, offered by Transportation and Natural Resource Director Joe Gieselman, is that the farm could apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, to drill a deeper well.

 

Commissioner Pct. 2 Sarah Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that “there is no doubt that all of the users who share that aquifer are drawing down the supply.” However, she said that the county is “hemmed in pretty tight” and has few available options to save the farm. “The state does not provide the county with the authority to be a water provider,” she said. “The most straightforward solution is that Tecolote drill a deeper well.”

 

Commissioner Pct. 3 Karen Huber seemed to reluctantly agree with her colleague. “My heart goes out to people who have historically had groundwater and are now having problems,” she told In Fact Daily. “But at the county level our hands are tremendously tied, other than advocating at the legislature for changes that need to be made. It’s a tough one.”

 

Commissioner Pct. 1, Ron Davis, who represents the farm’s precinct, told In Fact Daily that the law is clear. “We’re not a utility, that’s the point,” he said. “This is almost like providing water in the jurisdiction of an existing CCN, which is not legal.” Davis agreed that a USDA grant could provide money for a new well.

 

Judge Sam Biscoe is the farm’s strongest champion, and rejected the idea that a grant could save the farm in time. “I would doubt the USDA is sitting around with a whole lot of funds,” he told In Fact Daily. “If you go to the USDA, you probably want to have a project that does more than serve one farm.” He said programs such as this had lengthy waiting lists and were often tied to particular dates in the fiscal year. He said USDA funding, along with other options, could form a long-term solution for water problems in the eastern part of the county.

 

Commissioner Pct. 4 Margaret Gomez said that “it seems like we ought to be a good neighbor.”  She suggested that the county may be able to time its pumping to minimize or reduce the impact on the farm, and hoped for a way to irrigate East Metro Park with grey water. As for legal obstacles she said that “we can do things voluntarily,” in such a way that would not make the county a CCN.

 

Biscoe said, “The biggest obstacle really is whether or not we want to help.” With the will of the court, he said that the county “can overcome the legal obstacles; we have enough lawyers to do that.” Commissioners will consider taking action on the matter on March 17.

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