Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

More than One Million Gallons of Water Sold From Spicewood Beach Before it Ran Dry

Photo by David Barer/KUT News

Spicewood Beach was placed under stage 4 water restrictions last week, meaning residents can only use water for cooking, cleaning and drinking. Now they are being advised to boil their water.

Just how much water was sold from Spicewood Beach, the place with the dubious honor of being the first Texas town to run out of water during the current drought? We now have an idea. The paradox is clear: just weeks before water had to be trucked in to the dry wells of Spicewood Beach, water haulers were trucking it out to sell elsewhere. To make matters worse, the community is now under a boil water notice.

The Spicewood Beach water system is owned and operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), which manages water for much of Central Texas.

In 2011, the LCRA allowed two water haulers, Larry Ogden and Hank Cantu, to buy water from the Spicewood Beach water system and truck it out to others, according to an email from the LCRA to StateImpact Texas received late Wednesday evening. The LCRA says that they “have no way of tracking when the commercial customers took the water they purchased from the system.” But they do know how much water was taken out. And the numbers may surprise you.

At least 1.3 million gallons — and maybe more — were sold from the Spicewood Beach water system to those two customers. The LCRA says tonight in an email to StateImpact Texas that in 2011, 1.3 million gallons alone were sold from the Spicewood Beach water system to Hank Cantu’s operation, Hills of Texas Bulk Water. Another 3.5 million gallons were sold to Larry Ogden, who owns Wildcat Bulk Water Services and Hamilton Pool H20. The LCRA says they think most of Ogden’s water purchases were from the nearby West Travis County Water System and not from Spicewood Beach. However, they “don’t have exact amounts for each system because this customer uses a portable meter on his truck,” the LCRA said in the email.

Even if the total is little more than 1.3 million gallons — and it could be far more than that — it’s difficult to gauge at this point how much of an impact those water sales had on the wells in Spicewood Beach.

But let’s look at the numbers more closely.

The average Austin household uses about 100,000 gallons of water a year. By that measure, the water sold in 2011 from Spicewood Beach to haulers was enough to provide for anywhere from 13 to 48 average Central Texas homes. There are around 500 water meters in Spicewood Beach, most of them belonging to private residences and one to the Spicewood Beach Elementary School. So in essence, we’re looking at a range of 2.5 to as high as 10 percent of the water needed for customers in the community that was sold to outside contractors, according to the LCRA.

And who are those water haulers? Wildcat Bulk Water Services proudly proclaims on its website that it has “hauled over 21,000,000 gallons of potable water to remote locations and emergency response customers where reliable sources of fresh water were not readily available” since 2006. It also says on its website that most of its water sales in Central and South Texas are to drilling rig operations. It has a map on that page of where it provides water in the Eagle Ford Shale (a hotspot of fracking for natural gas and oil), but it isn’t clear where the water bought from Spicewood by Wildcat went. We have asked the LCRA for more information on how Wildcat used the water it purchased from Spicewood Beach, and will update that information here as it becomes available. (Update: We spoke with Larry Ogden of Wildcat Bulk Water and Hamilton H20 and he says none of the water from Spicewood Beach was delivered to rig operations in South Texas. Read our report and interview with him here.)

Hills of Texas Bulk Water, which bought 1.3 million gallons of water from Spicewood Beach in 2011, advertises on its website that it specializes in “delivering drinking water for holding tanks, swimming pool filling, construction jobs and more.”

Photo by Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

A contractor trucks in water to a storage tank in Spicewood Beach, Texas Monday, January 30.

The LCRA says that late Wednesday afternoon, Becky Motal, the head of the LCRA, “instructed staff not to accept any new applications from water haulers.” She has also told LCRA staff to “conduct a case-by-case analysis of agreements with all current contractors.”

And in an apparent shift from earlier statements that the cost of trucking water in to Spicewood Beach would ultimately be shared with local residents, Motal also said that the LCRA “will absorb the cost of trucking in the water to Spicewood Beach, and that LCRA will not pass along the cost of hauling the water to customers,” according to an email sent to StateImpact Texas.

Photo by David Barer/KUT News

Boat docks that once floated on Lake Travis now sit on dry ground in Spicewood Beach.

The LCRA says that they notified the two customers on January 4, 2012 that they could no longer withdraw water from the Spicewood Beach system. “Any water that may have been taken by a hauler after Jan. 4 was unauthorized, and we need to know about it so we can take appropriate action,” they said in the email.

The community of Spicewood Beach is now under a boil water notice. The LCRA says that the notice was “prompted by a change in well pumps, not because of any issues with water being trucked in to refill the Spicewood Beach system storage tank,” according to their website. They advise all residents of Spicewood Beach to boil any water for drinking, cooking and ice-making for two minutes before use.

Here’s more from the boil water notice:

“LCRA issued the precautionary boil water notice Wednesday morning after employees installed a smaller well pump in an effort to reduce the pumping effect on the extremely low water level in the well. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requires that a boil water notice be issued any time a well pump is removed. The well and new 50 gallon-per-minute pump were disinfected prior to being put into operation and the boil water notice is precautionary. The new pump replaces a 200 gallon-per-minute pump.

LCRA is currently testing the water to make sure that it is free of bacteria. The tests are expected to take about 24 hours to complete. LCRA will notify residents when the boil water notice is lifted, which could be as early as Thursday afternoon.”

You can read our previous coverage of Spicewood Beach and their wells running dry here.


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