Who's the Hog in This Circle C Water Fight?

Fight between golf course and LCRA shows it's not easy being green

Who's the Hog in This Circle C Water Fight?
Illustration By Doug Potter

The first cool day of fall saw Chip Gist, general manager of the Golf Club at Circle C, touring his grounds in a white golf cart and mirrored sunglasses. He zipped along a concrete track that rings the gently rolling greens, praising the weather and hollering hearty to the polo-shirted, baseball-capped players he passed. Then, somewhere around the fifth hole, he saw a pitiful sight: Smack in the middle of the velvety course, lumps of shredded turf lay scattered around like stuffing from a pillow after an unfriendly run-in with an excitable Doberman. Gist hopped the curb and buzzed his cart over to the scene of the damage.

"You know what that is?" he asked, somber and indignant. "Armadillos," he said. "Tearin' up my golf course."

Worm-grubbing armadillos aren't the only threat to the golf club's greens, however. The club recently embarked on what it thought was a nifty plan to conserve water and manage runoff from three nearby subdivisions at the same time, only to find itself challenged by those who say that storm water use isn't theirs for the taking. The Lower Colorado River Authority says the irrigation system, if allowed to move forward, could set dangerous precedents regarding when and how storm water is defined as a private possession or a public resource. Such an argument might sound like bureaucratic arcana, but it could have significant implications in the increasingly high-stakes battle to claim water rights in Texas.

The state officially owns all the surface water in Texas; entities wanting to use this water must apply for a state permit. The golf club's permit application deals with storm water, which is a bit of a fuzzy area in water law. The Texas Water Code includes storm water, rainwater, and floodwater within its definition of "state water"; however, the law has been interpreted to mean that these waters don't become a state resource until they flow into a body of water like a lake or a stream. In other words, a bucket of rainwater is yours. If you pour that water into a stream, it becomes state property. With its new irrigation system, the golf club essentially wants to collect a big bucket of rainwater, pour it in a streambed, and then take it back out again.

On the surface, the system seems like a smart way for the club and three neighboring subdivisions to manage Texas' climatological roller coaster of drought and flood. The golf club needs all the water it can get: In its permit application, the club estimates it uses about 262.5 acre-feet of water a year – enough to supply about 700 average households. Meanwhile, three neighboring subdivisions, built by KB Home, Newmark, and D.R. Horton, need a way to manage runoff from driveways, roofs, and other impervious surfaces that keep water from soaking into the ground. Developers typically accomplish this through detention ponds that catch and store the storm water; however, the ponds are expensive to build and maintain, and take up land that could otherwise be covered with another McMansion. So, the four entities got together and realized that one big detention pond would be better than three little detention ponds, especially next to a perpetually thirsty golf course that could tap the pond to keep its greens lush. The result was a 20-million-gallon reservoir, snappily named the Southwest Austin Regional Irrigation Storage Pond, which Gist estimates could provide about half the club's annual water needs. It looked like a match made in water management heaven – that is, until the LCRA got involved.

LCRA's associate general counsel, Lyn Dean, argued in a letter to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that the golf club's permit raises "potentially significant issues of precedent regarding the determination of when storm waters become 'state water.'" In the letter, the LCRA requested what is known as a contested case hearing with the TCEQ – a formal process by which outside parties air their complaints about pending applications.

The LCRA's argument is based on the fact that the golf club plans to use a dry creek bed called Danz Creek to move the storm water into the SARISP. The LCRA points out that once water goes into a streambed, it belongs to the state. Gist, on the other hand, says the storm water is private water that wouldn't even be in Danz Creek in the first place if the Circle C irrigation system hadn't put it there – it would be sitting in three little detention ponds. "Way I see it, we're creating more state water," Gist said.

In addition to the legal challenge, the irrigation system faces environmental ones. The city of Austin has protested that diverting all that storm water will hurt the Edwards Aquifer, where that water would have otherwise gone. And over the past year, environmental groups have drawn attention to the issue of "environmental flows," which is fancy talk for keeping water in the rivers as the Texas population – and demand for surface water – swells. The Golf Club at Circle C will likely not be the only entity seeking creative ways to get more water, so within the opposition to the golf club's irrigation system is the larger concern of what would happen to Texas rivers if large-scale diversion of storm water became a common practice. Ken Kramer of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club says that because competition for "every last drop of water" will be so intense in coming years, he favors a strong permitting process that ensures that the needs of downstream users (including fish and critters) are taken into account. "I think you start unraveling the whole state surface water law if you don't take the general premise that water in a state watercourse is state-owned water," Kramer said.

Gist, for his part, sees himself as just a guy trying to be a little more environmentally friendly as he runs a golf course, which, with all the hot summers, armadillos, and a PlayStation-paced younger generation turned off by a game where the ball mostly just sits, is harder than you might think. He insists he doesn't use one drop more than he needs to grow that nice, even grass discriminating golfers crave. "There's a perception that golf courses use too much water and make too much money," Gist said. "The only people who think that have never run a golf course."

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environment, Chip Gist, Golf Club at Circle C, Ken Kramer, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Nico Hauwert, Lower Colorado River Authority, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

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