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Aquifer conservation district: Larsen ‘still not finished,’ Williams ready to start

Friday, September 11, 2020 by Jo Clifton

“After 18 years I’m still not finished,” proclaims Robert (Bob) Larsen, who is running for reelection to the board of directors of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District in November. Challenging Larsen for the Precinct 4 seat is Christy Williams, a water and wastewater consultant who told the Austin Monitor, “I do think it’s time for a fresh perspective on the board and I think I could bring that perspective.”

Larsen, 82, is a retired professor from Texas State University, a job he held for 40 years. He says he plans to retire from the aquifer district board four years from now when the upcoming term is over. But as for now, Larsen has his sights set on a big project – desalinization of the saline portion of the Edwards Aquifer, east of Interstate 35.

Williams, 49, who has consulted for the Texas Department of Transportation, the Lower Colorado River Authority, developers and cities, said she is focused on protecting the environment, particularly Barton Springs. She serves on the board of directors of TreeFolks, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in Central Texas.

Larsen said, “What we’re doing at the district is a difficult task in the sense that we have to provide more and more water for the burgeoning population and we still have to protect the landowners with existing wells. That balance is getting to be delicate because one is intruding on the other. That balance is something that we’re still trying to maintain and that’s the basis of what we’re really after and always to be good stewards of the water,” he said.

Williams believes one of the most important things a member of the aquifer district board can do is look out for Barton Springs. She said that while Barton Springs isn’t the only endangered water feature in the district, protecting the springs is “definitely one of my top priorities. … That’s not going to be my only focus, but it’s going to be one of my primary focuses because I feel not only is it the heart and soul of what I love about Austin, it’s also kind of the canary in the coal mine. If we can’t figure out a way to protect Barton Springs then we are probably not protecting a lot of other unseen and harder to recognize water resources.”

Several years ago, Larsen said he spoke to his friend, Bob Gregory, co-owner of Texas Disposal Systems, which has a landfill in southeast Travis County. Gregory was one of Larsen’s students years ago so it was natural for Larsen to come up with an idea to drill into the saline Edwards and use methane gas from the landfill to power desalinization. That would require building a desalinization plant, but with that water available, there might be less pressure on the Barton Springs portion of the aquifer. Additionally, it’s likely that there would be more growth in the area.

However, when the Monitor asked another BSEACD board member, Craig Smith, about the possibility of the district building such a plant, he said it would cost millions of dollars and that no one has volunteered to finance or build such a facility. He added, “It’s a possibility lying out there but somebody would have to invest a large amount of money.” Smith said the district doesn’t own any wells except for testing and monitoring and is not set up to sell water.

Larsen has also advocated for underground storage of aquifer water, as well as water reuse. Those ideas are less controversial, but the storage proposal would still need funding. He said the district has a grant from the Texas Water Development Board for studying underground storage.

According to the district’s website, “BSEACD is a groundwater conservation district charged by the Texas Legislature to preserve, conserve and protect the aquifers and groundwater resources within its jurisdiction, which includes parts of three Central Texas counties. It is governed by a board of five elected directors and staffed with hydrogeologists, groundwater regulatory compliance specialists, environmental educators, geospatial systems specialists, and administrative support personnel.”

Williams said, “I am very supportive of alternative sources of drinking water, but I think it should be done in order to not only sustain existing supplies for our use, but also sustaining a supply for other beneficial uses like maintaining base flow, protecting springs, protecting endangered species, etc. So I don’t think that alternative water supplies should be a way of inviting additional development. I think land use codes and city code decisions should be used to drive where development goes and how fast it happens, not the availability of water.”

As a newcomer to aquifer district politics, Williams is at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to Larsen, who has served so many years. However, Williams has won the endorsement of the Travis County Democratic Party as well as the Circle C Democrats and is hoping for endorsements from more environmental organizations.

Newcomer Dan Tickens is running unopposed in Precinct 1 and incumbent Blake Dorsett is running unopposed in Precinct 3.

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