At the end of an almost four-hour meeting on Wednesday, the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District granted a local ranch owner standing to challenge Bastrop’s request for 2,000 acre-feet of water per year in front of a judge. The district, which regulates water in Bastrop and Lee counties, voted to allow 10 other landowners and a real estate developer to go before the same judge for a preliminary hearing to prove their stake in the matter.
“I hope that each one of you that’s on this board will never have to have this happen to you. I hope you have all the water that you all will need in your lifetime. I really do,” Anita Linenberger, a landowner said at the meeting. She and her daughter have a chance to appeal to the state judge for a hearing. “Little did we know 50 some odd years ago that we would have to be facing something of this magnitude. I didn’t realize people could come and steal your water. And I will not let it happen.”
But Mary Jo Goertz of McCall Ranch and Forestar USA have long claimed the request could negatively impact their water interests. On Wednesday, many other individuals with property nearby the proposed well tacked on new pleas to challenge the request.
The city’s application, which was originally filed in October 2013, was put on hold last May while Bastrop considered a settlement with Goertz and her lawyers. Early this year, however, agreement talks evaporated after the council voted down a proposed draft in February. Goertz’s property, McCall Ranch, borders XS Ranch on three sides.
Goertz and her lawyer Lynn Sherman have said they want the city to agree to help fund an aquifer model to assess the potential impact on pumping groundwater from the area and include protections for local landowners in the event that the pumping negatively impacts them in the future. City officials say Goertz is asking for provisions that will cost Bastrop unnecessary taxpayer dollars and the agreement was not in the city’s best interest.
Goertz, the lone protestor found to have standing Wednesday night, will have the opportunity to present her case through expert testimony and evidence at a hearing with a state administrative judge.
Ed McCarthy, an attorney for Forestar, said at the meeting that the developer is seeking to challenge Bastrop’s request because when the groundwater district granted only a portion of Forestar’s request to pump water last year, the district said it was because allowing more production would affect its ability to protect the water supply for the future.
In January 2014, the groundwater district denied Forestar’s request to pump 45,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Simsboro Aquifer to development along the I-35 corridor in Hays County, instead only granting permission for 12,000 acre-feet annually.
McCarthy, who also represents Houston-based Electro Purification in its controversial plans to sell water in Hays County, wrote in the developer’s request for a contested hearing that either the 2,000 acre-feet Bastrop is requesting is not available or the district “wrongfully denied” Forestar’s previous request.
At times the meeting devolved into disarray, with more than 60 people packed into Bastrop City Hall, many were surrounding property owners from the proposed well who found out about the request through paid advertisements by Goertz.
Goertz and her representatives gave a lengthy presentation, which included testimony from a hydrologist, though Bastrop’s representatives were told they couldn’t have their water consultants give rebuttal testimony.
“The city’s representatives were very confused about the process that the district chose to use for this public hearing and felt like as a result of the process, people — including the city — were more confused than informed,” Bastrop’s city attorney J.C. Brown said in an interview Thursday.
Much of the protestors’ anger seemed to stem from the district’s failure to notify area landowners about the request and rumors that Bastrop might sell the water it’s requesting.
Legally, the groundwater district only needs to provide notice of the well permit request to landowners who hold adjoining property, are within 5,000 feet from the proposed well and have an operating or planned well in the same aquifer, the district’s lawyer Robin Melvin said at the meeting.
The district also placed notices in the Elgin and Giddings newspapers, but not in the Bastrop paper — a move by the district many in attendance Wedensday night took issue with.
“What concerns me is we weren’t notified about this,” said Linda Evans-Logan, a property owner protesting Bastrop’s request. “It’s kind of frightening to think that someone is going to come in and sell the water right out from under you.”
The city originally requested 6,000 acre-feet of water per year with four wells, but has since amended its request to just one well and 2,000 acre-feet annually. The current request stipulates the water can only be used in the city’s water service area.
City officials attempted to quell the rumors by speaking during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“All I am asking is that you let us take the water we own, dig a well and pump the water to Bastrop and the 8,000 people who live here and the many thousands who are coming,” Mayor Ken Kesselus said. “We need this to be productive, to be successful. In fact, to be a community we need this water. It’s absolutely vital.”
The groundwater district will work with the State Office of Administrative Hearings to set up the hearings in the coming weeks, which could be as earlier as the end of May, said Gregory Ellis, special counsel for contested hearings for the groundwater district.
If Goertz/McCall Ranch is the sole entity granted standing in the case, she will cover the $20,000 cost of the hearing, Ellis said. If Forestar is party to the hearing as well, it will split the cost with Goertz.
During the evidentiary hearing, Goertz, any other parties granted standing and the city of Bastrop will be allowed to call for discovery and present testimony and evidence. The judge will then determine the findings of fact and come to a recommended conclusion that will be sent to the groundwater district, Ellis said.
Ellis said groundwater districts usually approve the recommendation from the judge.