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LCRA continues to face questions over Spicewood Beach water problems

Friday, February 3, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Lower Colorado River Authority continues to face probing questions stemming from the sudden loss of supply from its Spicewood Beach water system in Burnet County. On Thursday, the organization answered the most formal of these in a letter addressed to State Senator Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), who represents the area affected by the drain.


LCRA representatives also met Thursday with Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger. “We have a lot of questions that are not answered,” she told In Fact Daily on her way to the meeting.


This all comes as the proprietors of two Central Texas water hauling firms faced a media gauntlet in the wake of an Austin American-Statesman story which revealed that the LCRA sold water to them from the Spicewood Beach system. Representatives of those firms, Hills of Texas Bulk Water and Hamilton Pool H20 each said that they’d purchased water from the LCRA for multiple years, and that they had no idea that Spicewood System was running low. “(The LCRA) had no communication or plan,” Hamilton Pool owner Larry Ogden told In Fact Daily.


For his part, Fraser seemed alarmed. “I am deeply concerned that the Spicewood Beach Regional Water System almost ran out of water this week,” he said in a statement Thursday. “During our state’s ongoing drought, the (LCRA) should have known that pulling water out of this system to sell to some other entity could be detrimental to the system.


He continued to lay the blame squarely on the agency. “The LCRA’s management of this system contributed to this well going dry and the LCRA has the obligation and the resources to take care of it,” he said. “I have advised the LCRA that the expense of fixing the problem should be borne by the LCRA and not the residents of the Spicewood Beach system.”


Burnet County holds a seat on the LCRA’s board. Fraser, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources, also represents residents of that area. The senator sent the LCRA his list of questions on Jan. 31. With them, he tried to establish a timeline of drought restrictions for the system, how the LCRA monitors the Spicewood Beach water level, how rate-payers were notified of the shortage, and the LCRA’s “long-term strategy for ensuring that Spicewood Beach continues to have access to water,” among other concerns.


In her response, LCRA general manager Becky Motal wrote that the organization “monitors water use through meters in all systems and checks well levels periodically.” In terms of the Spicewood Beach utility, Motal noted that “(it) has been checked twice a day for the past several weeks and daily for the past several months.”


That answer would jibe with what LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma told In Fact Daily Thursday morning. The LCRA “normally monitor(s) the system several times a week,” Tuma said. She added that, “as water levels continued to fall through the winter, we began monitoring it once a day.”


“For the last two weeks, we’ve been monitoring it twice a day,” she added. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 2, 2012).

Klaeger sounded a note of skepticism. “If they knew what was coming, how come they haven’t done anything?” she asked.

Motal wrote Fraser that the LCRA “does sell water to water haulers who take it primarily from the West Travis County system.” She said that Hamilton Pool and Hills of Texas “drew water from the Spicewood system in 2011.”


On Thursday evening, Tuma told In Fact Daily that “the LCRA does not have any agreements to sell groundwater to any water delivery services outside the Spicewood Beach system.” She also noted that the utility does not believe it faces any penalties for cutting the sales off, as it did on Jan. 4.


Hamilton Pool’s Ogden told In Fact Daily that his firm has been “picking up water from (the Spicewood Beach system) since late 2007.” He notes that the Spicewood water makes up only a small portion of his supply – roughly two percent – and that much of his business serves customers who use the water for basic household needs. “Either their wells have dried up or they’re on rain water collection only,” Ogden says.


Ogden says that Hamilton Pool serves six customers in the Spicewood area that “actually order water from us.” He adds that, for the most part, they order one 2000 gallon delivery every three-to-four weeks.


Hills of Texas’ Hank Cantu echoes Ogden’s implication. He notes that his household-use customers are, for the most part, “very frugal” with their purchase – a figure that he puts at 2,000 gallons every 6-8 weeks. Cantu suggests that their water use is “pretty much a drop in the bucket compared to what the residents of Spicewood Beach (are using).”


According to figures provided by Tuma, a Spicewood Beach residential customer uses, on average, roughly 2,450 gallons of water per month.


Cantu adds that he wonders whether the LCRA was aware of the impending problem. “I don’t know that they knew it was low,” he said.


Klaeger says that her court can legally do “nothing” in terms of formal action. However, she promises to stay involved in the situation as it plays out. “You want to know when you turn on your faucet whether or not water is going to come out,” she said.


The judge has three major concerns. “I’m a strong advocate of communication,” she says, noting that the Spicewood Beach system serves a small enough customer base that the LCRA should have the ability to get in touch with each of them. Klaeger also wants to be sure that the Spicewood Beach customers can continue to count on a water supply.


Klaeger then turned to the fact that the Spicewood Beach system is one of 18 that the LCRA is attempting to sell to private water firm Corix Infrastructure. She says that the issue of a long-range plan “really concerns me.”


“What happens when you sell a utility that doesn’t have any water?” she asks.

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