Mose Buchele of StateImpact Texas and Andy Uhler of KUT News contributed to this report.
Just weeks before water had to be trucked in to Spicewood Beach, it was being sold to haulers who trucked it out. Over a million gallons in the last year.
Today, StateImpact Texas spoke with Larry Ogden of Hamilton Pool H20, one of two haulers that bought water from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in Spicewood Beach. The community doesn’t actually own their own water — they gave it over to the LCRA over a decade ago. The LCRA now owns and manages the wells, which began to fail Monday.
The LCRA says most of the water sold from the system wasn’t taken out by Ogden’s company. It was likely taken out by the other contractor, Hills of Texas Bulk Water, which hauled out 1.3 million gallons of water from Spicewood Beach last year. Hank Cantu, who owns the company, has not returned our calls.
Ogden agrees that his water hauling operation probably took out much less. “I would guess it was probably in the neighborhood of 60-80,000 gallons of water [last year]. We’re not one of the big haulers in the area.” Ogden says his 2,000-gallon trucks would pull into Spicewood Beach, hook up to a fire hydrant, fill up, and then haul it off to their customers.
“Generally, it’s for primary source of water for a home. Showers, toilets, maybe some drinking water if they have the proper setup.” Ogden says almost all of the water went to private customers within ten miles. And the LCRA didn’t charge him a lot for it.
“Water’s cheap,” Ogden says. And he has a point. For the roughly 1.4 million gallons of water trucked out of Spicewood Beach last year, Ogden says the LCRA was probably paid a little over $11,000. And that’s if the haulers paid on the high end.
Here’s the math: haulers pay between six and eight dollars for every thousand gallons of water. So 1.4 million gallons — at the highest rate of eight dollars for every thousand gallons — would add up to $11,200. “The water is the cheapest part of the equation,” Ogden says. “We’re being subsidized for water. But it should probably be valued like fuel.”
Right now trucks are hauling water in to Spicewood Beach, charging about $200 to the LCRA for each 4,000-gallon load. It’s strange to think that just weeks ago, the LCRA was charging water haulers only $32 to pump out that same amount from the community’s water system.
Ogden says that he stopped hauling water from Spicewood Beach in early January when the LCRA told him to stop. “I got the phone call saying you can’t pull [water] out,” he says. “And I said, “okay.”
But Ogden says he was surprised to hear just weeks later that the community’s wells were about to fail. “I didn’t even know Spicewood Beach wasn’t connected to [the LCRA's] network out there.” He thought Spicewood Beach was part of the LCRA’s larger water system in nearby Marble Falls. “It would have been helpful for us to know that,” he says. “It sure looks like, from this point of view, they should have stepped in earlier.”
Residents have been wondering about the water haulers for years, but it became a main topic of conversation when the town was put in Stage 3 water restrictions on January 4. The wells failed about three weeks later.
Connie Heller, who lives in Spicewood Beach, says residents are concerned that some of their water was taken illegally. “Some trucks didn’t have labels some trucks didn’t have anything on them,” she says. “They were solid white water trucks. And you presume that LCRA knows about it.”
“I think people need to realize that water is a very precious commodity,” Larry Ogden, the water hauler, says. “And for too long we’ve had artificially low rates for water. When people think about having a beautiful yard, for example, there is a cost to doing that beyond their water bill. And it’s really time for us all to get more educated on how to conserve such a precious resource. I’m really in favor of conserving every ounce that we have.”
The General Manager of the LCRA, Becky Motal, appeared in a video about the Spicewood Beach situation on their website today. She was interviewed by the LCRA spokesperson Clara Tuma. When asked why the wells are failing in Spicewood Beach, Motal answered that the water hauling is “absolutely not” to blame. “I have to keep repeating, we are in an exceptional drought,” Motal says. “We haven’t had enough rain in the Highland Lakes area.”
Below is the full video from LCRA General Manager Becky Motal. When asked why Spicewood Beach’s water wasn’t just kept for its residents, she says that “Sometimes [water haulers] provide a needed service to parts of the indusrty. When we went into stage 3 in Spicewood, we notified [them] that we would immediately terminate their water use.”
The LCRA now finds itself in a difficult position. Motal says, on one hand, that the agency did nothing wrong. But on the other hand, she says the agency will reform its policies to try to prevent a situation like this from happening again.
StateImpact Texas has filed an open records request with the LCRA asking for more information on how the Spicewood Beach water system was managed. We will be reporting more as we learn it, and you can read all of our previous coverage of Spicewood Beach here.