The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Pumped Up

By Rob D'Amico, September 29, 2000, News

T.J. Higginbotham, the cigar-chomping Buda-area resident who's asking to pump 50 million gallons a year from the Edwards Aquifer, outlined his plans for the water in detail at a Tuesday night meeting of the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board.

Higginbotham told the board, which grants permits for wells and pumping limits from the aquifer, that he intends to sell the water to developer John Lloyd for use at the new Rimrock subdivision miles to the west. The water, piped from Higginbotham's ranch just west of Buda on FM 967, also would supplement the inadequate supply of the Huntington Estates subdivision off RR 1826. The board had tried all summer to get Higginbotham to spell out why he wanted the water. Conflicting answers from his representatives and the revelation that the water could feed new development further angered the board.

But Higginbotham contends he couldn't outline his plans until he knew how much water the well would support, and he says he thinks his current proposal is best for the county. His engineer, Phil Savoy, notes that using a centralized water system with good water to supply new Hays County residents is much better than the alternative -- letting the developer pump hundreds of wells at the development site. "To serve all these people, the prudent thing to do is one well," he says. "The best way to protect the aquifer is to limit the number of wells."

Board members Tuesday unanimously granted a permit that allows Higginbotham to build his well and operate it for public supply. But how much he will pump won't be decided until after tests are done to see his well's effect on neighboring wells. And board members are reluctant to allow any new pumping in the first place, since lack of rain and increased development have put a severe strain on flow levels at Barton Springs.

For instance, board president Craig Smith notes that "projections show a seven-year drought would dry up [Barton] Springs at the current pumping levels." Adding to the strain is an application from Buda to increase its pumping by 50 million gallons annually. If approved, Higginbotham's operating permit would be the 13th largest for the district, behind top pumper Goforth Water Supply Corporation (220 million gallons) and Creedmore-Maha (187 million).

Board member Jack Goodman is concerned that letting Higginbotham proceed would mean the BS/EACD would have to let others follow in his footsteps. "Precedent is what worries me," he says. "When is it going to end?"

Higginbotham's neighbors are also protesting his plan, because they fear it will mean a drop in their well water levels. About a dozen people spoke out against the plan, and many were upset that the board would consider taking water from the Buda area and sending it somewhere else. Citizens heard that one Buda well monitored by the district is at its lowest level ever.

A hydrologist hired by Higginbotham, Mike Thornhill, told the board that recent tests showed that nearby well levels dropped by an insignificant amount after continuous pumping of a test well for 24 hours. He also noted that the total amount pumped from the well annually would only amount to 0.4% of the flow of Barton Springs, which is the Edwards Aquifer's biggest "pumper."

The figures, meant to show that the well would have a minimal effect on the aquifer, had the opposite result for some in attendance Tuesday. Hays County resident Debbie Bates says 0.4% "doesn't sound small to me ... I think that sounds like a lot."

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