If there is a Rodney Dangerfield among water suppliers, it might be Charles Laws, who must have felt like the "king of no respect" after last week's hearing on his request to triple the amount of water he draws from the Edwards Aquifer. A descendant of Reconstruction-era settlers with deep Texas roots, Laws operates the Creedmoor-Maha Water Supply Corp. and has a history of acrimonious relations with those who control his livelihood. His latest proposal seems to further illustrate his differences with the city of Austin and the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD), the quasi-governmental body charged with deciding the company's request.
At issue is Creedmoor-Maha's proposal to pump a record 617 million gallons of water per year from the aquifer. The company doesn't need nearly this much water right now, but says it will, in order to meet long-term growth projections in its service area. That territory, which straddles the southeastern corner of Travis County and adjacent portions of Hays, Caldwell, and Bastrop Counties, includes part of the route of the planned State Highway 130. And Creedmoor-Maha says it needs the permit now to qualify for a $600,000 federal loan to finance construction of a pipeline intended to meet those future demands.
The cities of Austin and Buda are formally contesting the increase, as are the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Friendship Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood representatives in the growth-intensive corridor of northern Hays County. Moreover, several aquifer-dependent residents in northeastern Hays voiced their opposition at last week's hearing, fearing their own wells will run dry if such a huge increase is granted. Several called on Creedmoor-Maha to withdraw its request until after the release of a special study under way by the BSEACD to determine the life span of the aquifer, already considered an increasingly depleted resource.
The BSEACD board, typically controlled by a 3-2 environmental majority, will hear more testimony on Jan. 3 before making a decision. Last week's hearing boasted a standing-room-only crowd that filled the BSEACD lobby, which serves double-duty as a boardroom. Laws stood silent for most of the meeting while his attorney argued his case. The Laws team even brought along a court reporter to record the event.
David Johns, a geologist with the city of Austin, told the BSEACD board that Creedmoor-Maha's permit, if granted, could cause Barton Springs to run dry if Central Texas experiences another "drought of record" such as the historic dry spell of 1949-56. "In effect," Johns said, "the springs may dry up not if, but when, this drought reoccurs." In that respect, Johns said, the city could expect its environmental and economic investments to dry up as well. To discourage excess pumping from the aquifer, Austin officials say they are willing to negotiate selling additional wholesale water to Creedmoor-Maha. The city currently sells Laws about 29 million gallons per year, although this business relationship has run hot and cold for several years, said Creedmoor-Maha's attorney, Mark Zeppa.
Last week, after Johns renewed the city's offer to revisit the negotiating table, Zeppa told the Chronicle that his client would consider reviving the talks, but would not bet the farm on their success. "We would go back and renegotiate costs and limitations, but what Austin may want is incompatible with our interests and with what the [Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission] wants," he said, referring to the city's conservation-oriented water limits. "The TNRCC says that if a customer turns on the tap, water needs to come out, and it's our responsibility to provide water to our customers." An Austin attorney who represents independent water suppliers, Zeppa also suggested that negotiations between the two parties are sullied by the fact that both the city and Creedmoor-Maha have designs on the same service market. The city, sitting on a cache of water it bought two years ago from the Lower Colorado River Authority, wants to expand its water business in its extra-territorial jurisdiction in southern Travis County. But there are longstanding disagreements between the city and Creedmoor-Maha regarding who has the rights to provide this lucrative service. The Austin City Council is set to discuss the Creedmoor-Maha request in executive session on Dec. 13.
From the city of Buda's perspective, Creedmoor-Maha hasn't experienced the growth patterns in residential and commercial customers that might justify a 300% increase, said Buda City Council Member Chuck Murphy. While Buda recently asked for -- and got -- permission to pump 200 million gallons of water per year from the aquifer, the boomtown has also turned to other sources, such as the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, for its water needs. Creedmoor-Maha should also diversify its sources of water, Murphy said. In anticipation of the Jan. 3 meeting, the BSEACD board has asked the wholesale supplier to provide more detailed evidence -- including site plans and plats of planned developments -- to substantiate what could represent the largest water-usage increase on record within the Barton Springs segment of the aquifer.
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