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Permit granted for annual extraction of 289 million gallons from Trinity Aquifer

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District granted a permit to Needmore Water LLC on Monday evening to pump up to 289,080,000 gallons of water per year from the Trinity Aquifer. According to the applicant, the water will be used for wildlife management and agricultural purposes on Needmore River Ranch, a 5,000-acre property owned by Greg LaMantia on the Blanco River east of Wimberley.

Environmentalists and numerous local residents came to speak at the district’s meeting in Buda. All of them were concerned that the requested volume of pumping – equivalent to 550 gallons a minute – would considerably reduce the amount of water available in the aquifer for nearby residents and would negatively impact the region’s long-term sustainability.

Despite the call from residents and environmental organizations for a moratorium on large-volume applications, the district ultimately decided it had no legal choice but to grant the permit. Still, with that permit, Needmore agreed to a number of special provisions that, according to Brian Hunt, the district’s senior hydrogeologist, are likely necessary to prevent any unreasonable impacts to nearby wells.

With regular monitoring of the nearby Amos Well, the district has put in place a system of pumping restrictions on Needmore if water levels fall below certain thresholds. If water levels get too low, within 20 feet of the Amos Well pump, Needmore will be notified to stop all pumping activities until water levels recover.

After many questions about the particulars of these provisions, the district’s board of directors ultimately acknowledged its inability to reduce or otherwise reject the permit application. Following a motion by Director Craig Smith, the board granted the permit in a 5-0 vote.

Paired with another controversial permit request from Electro Purification LLC to pump over 900 million gallons a year from the Trinity Aquifer, residents worry that the aquifer will have no water left for residents and businesses in the future.

In an email after the district’s vote, Vanessa Puig-Williams, executive director of the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association, told the Austin Monitor that the district’s future decision on whether or not to grant the permit to Electro Purification is now even more critical for the region.

Puig-Williams urged the district Monday to use legal authority and reject the Needmore permit request. Although the district is limited in its powers by the state’s 2015 House Bill 3405, a bill designed to protect the rights of property owners to pump water from existing wells, she said the district could still revoke the permit based on the issue of Needmore’s eligibility.

The applicant, she argued, was not eligible to apply for its initial temporary permit under the protections of HB 3405 because the bill was meant to protect wells that were being operated in June 2015 when the bill took effect. Needmore’s well, she said, was determined by the district to be in an abandoned and deteriorated condition at that time, making the applicant ineligible.

Beyond that, she said, the regular permit could still be revoked because the Needmore application deceptively stated that the well had previously been used for agricultural purposes when it had only been used to fill a recreational pond.

Bill Dugat, attorney to the district’s general manager, disagreed with Puig-Williams’ legal claims. In accordance with the ruling of Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Frazee in June 2018, Dugat said, the district does not have authority to reconsider the validity of the temporary permit issued in October 2015. Even if it did, he said, HB 3405 only states that the well must have been operated prior to the bill’s effective date, which was certainly the case with Needmore’s well.

Dugat conceded, however, that the initial permit was flawed. Whereas the law clearly states that the permit should be granted for the maximum amount requested, John Dupnik, the district’s general manager at the time, chose to lower the amount permitted to just under 180 million gallons per year. Despite that decision, Dugat said the correct response now is to grant a regular permit for the full requested amount, in accordance with the well’s capacity as determined by the district’s 36-hour pump test.

Residents repeatedly stressed that the permit allows for too much water pumping when the district does not know the details of what it will be used for.

“If I came and asked for a lot of water, I’d tell you why, because it’s the right thing to do,” said resident Louie Bond, who spoke against the permit.

Others, like Marcella Jones, owner of a property in Summer Mountain Ranch south of the Needmore well, raised further concerns about the site’s controversially granted municipal utility district designation, a category generally reserved for master-planned communities. “Surely the agricultural use and a municipal utility district are not compatible uses,” Jones said. “There’s got to be an underlying story.”

According to Ed McCarthy, LaMantia’s lawyer, there is no such story. The permit being requested, he told the district Monday, would only allow for specific agricultural uses. For those purposes, he said, “we can’t pump, won’t pump, if we’re not going to apply it to a beneficial use.” If in the future the applicant wished to use the water for any purpose other than agriculture, including wildlife management or irrigation, he said, the district would first need to amend the permit based on that specific request.

Looking ahead, Puig-Williams said the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association is looking at every legal option available. Besides that, she said, the organization is ready to fight the Electro Purification permit.

“I want to be clear that (HB 3405) is irrelevant to the Electro Purification permit,” she said. “The board has significant leeway to deny or greatly reduce Electro Purification’s permit. And based on their decision to grant Needmore Ranch a permit for almost 300 million gallons a year, they should deny or greatly reduce EP’s request. There is simply not enough available water to permit to Electro Purification now that Needmore has its permit.”

This story has been changed since publication. Photo courtesy of Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District.

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