In a fluid competition, Hays seeks to lock down water for the future
by BRAD ROLLINS
Hays County commissioners staked a claim to a water supply for the future on Tuesday, unanimously approving a letter of intent to buy 25,000 to 45,000 acre-feet of groundwater each year for 50 years from a private company that plans to pump from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to the east.
“Water rights in Texas are up for grabs. … This is an attempt by Hays County to get our names in the pot so when they start divvying up the water, they’ll have some for Hays County,” said County Judge Bert Cobb. Even under the best scenario, Hays County won’t see any Carrizo-Wilcox water from the deal for at least two years, Cobb said.
Forestar Group Inc., a real estate and development spin-off of the lumber behemoth Temple-Inland corporation, owns or leases 18,000 acres in the Carizzo-Wilcox region, said Chris Nines, the company’s chief financial officer. Much of that is property over the Simsboro formation of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer in Bastrop and Lee counties, rights it acquired when it bought out Sustainable Water Resources, one of the big-name water speculators seeking to buy water and move it to Austin, San Antonio and communities like Hays County in between. The company can’t start pumping water without permits from the Smithville-based Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District and other companies are seeking those permits as well.
Said Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley, “The main purpose of our letter of intent is to get people moving. Hays County is serious about getting some water into this area. I think that’s a message to LCRA and GBRA and to anybody else that’s watching. We are dead serious about bringing alternative water resources here.”
The 25,000 to 45,000 acre-feet Hays would buy under the arrangement would at least double the amount of water available to municipalities and water supply companies within the county. An acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to flood one acre of space one foot deep, or about 325,851 gallons.
Hays County used 22,249 acre-feet of water in 2008, the most recently figures available from the Texas Water Development Board. Most of that — 20,554 acre-feet — was used with by municipalities and other water retails with the remainder split between manufacturing (512 acre-feet); mining (4 acre-feet); irrigation (843 acre-feet); and livestock (336 acre-feet).
“Ultimately what this is about is supplying water to Hays County. To the extent that people want to live there, you need water to do that and this would make it available,” Nines said.
Officials described the letter of intent as the framework for negotiating a deal with Forestar, not a contractual obligation. In the world of Texas water wildcatters – and the counties and cities seeking to lock down future water sources – circumstances are perennially fluid.
In December 2010, the Texas Water Development Board loaned $2.5 million to the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority as seed money for construction of a major water pipeline from Burleson or Lee counties southwest to Hays County and – in what would be a major triumph to GBRA – on to thirsty San Antonio.
But Cobb envisions a different partner in the effort to bring Simsboro water to the high-growth Interstate 35 and Texas 130 corridor. He says the Lower Colorado River Authority is looking to get out of the retail water business, but needs to tap into other water supplies beyond its limited surface water holdings in order to meet its obligations to cities and other entities across Central Texas. LCRA is being sued by the San Antonio Water System for $1.23 billion for backing out of a plan to ship water from the Colorado River to Bexar County; entering into a deal with Hays County would be a step toward resolving that litigation, Cobb said.
“They have become realists and realize they’ve got to do something if they’re going to meet their mandate. … Even the environmentalists are realizing that the water we’re trying to acquire is not for growth necessarily but to provide water for those who are already here. Trying to link water to development is nonsensical in my opinion,” Cobb said.
Water can be transported form the Simsboro area to the nearest LCRA facility through a 60-mile pipeline, Cobb said, as opposed to a 100-mile pipeline GBRA would need to bring the water south.
The Simsboro formation where Forestar wants to drill is to the north of the portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer where the Hays County Public Utility Agency — made up of San Marcos, Kyle, Buda and the Canyon Regional Water Authority — is buying up water rights in anticipation of a future well field.
Officials say it is too early to tell whether Hays County’s foray into the water business would undermine or complement the concurrent efforts of its corridor cities via the HCPUA.
Likewise, GBRA General Manager Bill West said intensive competition to secure water supplies means the situation is always evolving. Asked whether Hays County is a competitor or collaborator in relation to his own water plans, West said. “The appropriate answer is ‘all of the above.’”
» Letter of Intent between Hays County and Forestar Group Inc. [pdf]