Opinion: LCRA’s Water Marketing Ambitions Could Lower the Colorado River Below Austin

Environmental activist Rusty Middleton raises concerns over a groundwater pumping plan

Opinion: LCRA’s Water Marketing Ambitions Could Lower the Colorado River Below Austin

Armed with a permit it is seeking from the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) plans to pump an astonishing 25,000 acre-foot of groundwater per year from the Simsboro Aquifer under Bastrop and surrounding counties.

Just a couple of problems with that plan.

One, pumping at that volume could dry up water wells around Bastrop County and two, such pumping could actually lower the level of the Colorado River, especially during times of drought. Such a drastic possible outcome lit a proverbial fire under Environmental Stewardship, the Bastrop-based nonprofit that I work for, as well as numerous Bastrop County well/land owners and the City of Elgin. The landowners and City of Elgin are facing huge costs to redrill or replace existing water wells. They sued (technically protested) the permit in a Contested Case Hearing in October 2019.

The connection between aggressive pumping of aquifers and a lowered water table is well established and documented. What is less well-known is the threat that high volume drawdowns pose to surface water.

George Rice, a hydrologist who has studied the Simsboro Aquifer for years, told me that heavy groundwater withdrawals could turn the Colorado and some contributing waterways, such as Wilbarger Creek, into what are known in hydrology as losing streams instead of gaining streams. That's because there is an exchange between groundwater and surface water. When the water table is high enough, groundwater flows from the aquifer into streams making them gain water. But when groundwater falls below the level of the streams, surface water flows into the aquifer, turning them into losing streams. Over decades, with the introduction of more people and more wells in Texas, this process has occurred with regularity. Many streams and springs in Texas have declined or stopped flowing altogether because of heavy groundwater extraction. The Rio Grande, San Saba, Colorado, and Brazos Rivers are just a few examples cited by a House Natural Resources Committee Interim Report where groundwater extraction has brought about conflict and lawsuits.

Indeed, there are nearby examples of the consequences of excessive groundwater withdrawals to water wells also.

Rancher L.C. Hobbs in Lee County, which borders Bastrop County, saw his well drop an alarming 400 plus feet in 1999, according to a Texas Observer article about heavy groundwater pumping associated with an ALCOA [Aluminum Company of America] mining operation. Hobbs had to drill a deeper well only to find water fouled by minerals. The mine has now closed, but the water table, and many springs along the Colorado have yet to recover.

Small wonder that Environmental Stewardship and many Bastrop County residents are worried.

All this pumping comes with an absence of reliable knowledge about the aquifer level in the pumping area. Rice said there are currently no monitoring wells to quantify existing surface and groundwater interaction, and adds that an effective monitoring system is needed before heavy pumping begins.

This pumping proposal makes an ironic situation for an agency that is supposed to conserve and protect Colorado River water for downstream users and freshwater inflows needed by Matagorda Bay.

One of Lower Colorado River Authority's stated missions is "water stewardship." Stewardship means wise, long-term, integrated management of both surface and groundwater resources.

As a state agency, LCRA should not be acting like a for-profit water marketing corporation with a for-profit mentality and motivation. Its approach threatens the environmental and economic health of the Colorado River, Matagorda Bay, and communities of the lower Colorado River basin.

Administrative Law judges are expected to rule on the Environmental Stewardship permit protest sometime in early-mid 2020.

Rusty Middleton is an editor for Environmental Stewardship, a 14-year-old organization dedicated to protecting the natural resources of the Lost Pines and the Texas Gulf Coast.

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LCRA, Lower Colorado River Authority, Environmental Stewardship, groundwater

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