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Bastrop County neighbors blame turf company for dry wells

People living in rural Bastrop County say some of their wells have gone dry, pointing to a sod-growing company. The KVUE Defenders found the problem runs deeper.

BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — People living in rural areas in Bastrop County say some of their wells are going dry, pointing to a sod-growing company. They called the KVUE Defenders for help. 

We found the problem runs much deeper than one company and could impact us all.

Change may be constant for most people, but for Diann Watson, things have changed way too fast when it comes to her water supply.

“It’s so dry,” she said. “It’s sad.”

She took the KVUE Defenders to ranches in Paige to meet people like Roy Hermes who are losing their water.

“The creek is flowing a whole lot better now than it was two to three weeks ago,” Hermes said. “It’s all spring-fed.”

Hermes said his neighbor’s water use dropped the water level in his well and limited flow in the creek near his property.

“This was down to barely a trickle,” he said, referring to the creek. 

“And yes, they were irrigating,” he added, referring to his neighbor.

Irrigation is typical in Bastrop County, especially for ranchers who pump water to grow hay for livestock. But Hermes’ neighbor grows turf grass like you see on golf courses, sports fields and residential landscapes.

“You can see the area that they've been irrigating where it's green, right up to the weeds over here,” Hermes said, pointing towards his neighbor’s property.

Thomas Turfgrass is the sod-growing company operating on the other side of Hermes’ fence. Hermes’ problem is not only how much water gets used but when it’s used.

“I've got a video here at 12 noon, at 2:30,” Hermes said.

He isn’t the only upset neighbor.

"In a drought condition, where are the people going to get the water to water the grass they buy from [Thomas Turfgrass]?” Wallace DeHardt asked.

DeHardt said the water on his land dwindled. He has three spring-fed ponds that are nearly dry. The pumpless artesian well feeding his primary pond stopped flowing.

“This well is dry. That one over there is dry. And I got two more in the back – just dry … and it's stinky,” DeHardt said.

Dry for DeHardt means he would need a pump to get the water out. He has one well equipped with a pump, but if water drops too low he’d have none for his cattle unless he pays to have the pump lowered.

“My cows are thirsty,” DeHardt said.

Hermes and DeHardt live in part of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, which covers both Bastrop County and Lee County.

The KVUE Defenders dug through conservation records, hydrology reports and the state’s well registry. We found the problem isn’t just the one neighbor or one company – it’s hundreds.

Records show nearly 3,500 wells in the district. More than half of those were drilled since the last major Texas drought in 2011. Plus, the filings show “domestic” use for most of the wells, which are not monitored. The state exempts domestic wells from permitting. A district can only limit the size of the pump.

“In terms of a regional impact, I don't think that it's going to be exempt that's going to be driving that,” said Jim Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.

“Adding pumping is always going to have added stress on the aquifer,” he continued.

In the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, any well pumping more than 25,000 gallons of water a day requires a permit. But Totten says every groundwater district is different.

The KVUE Defenders found large volume pumpers take water from Bastrop for use in other areas. A 2016 permit shows one company allowed to pump millions of gallons each day for customers in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.

“We are seeing some regional declines,” Totten said.

Totten said projects in a neighboring district also impacted people in Lost Pines GCD.

So, the turf-growing operation isn’t entirely to blame.

Water for turf

Seth Thomas, farm manager at Thomas Turfgrass, showed the KVUE Defenders how the company operates. He said the turf he grows has benefits like controlling erosion and dust.

“It has a cooling effect,” he said. “It sequesters carbon dioxide, and so there's a lot of environmental benefits to grass.”

We asked Thomas what he does for efficient water use, to make sure the shared water stays on his field and minimize runoff.

“It's sprays, and a pattern to where it's just circling around,” said Thomas, describing how his irrigation system works. “And then we put these as low to the ground as we can just to get to the ground as quickly as possible and minimize any evaporation.” 

Some of the sprayers hang less than a foot off the ground. Thomas said they spray what would be about a quarter-inch of rain across the entire field. The pivot irrigation system takes 14 hours to fully rotate. If it’s a hot, dry season, like we’ve had, he said his irrigation systems may operate daily. If it’s cooler or rainy weather, then they might operate every other week.

Grass plugs on barren areas may require water during the hottest part of the day.

“A freshly planted area is a lot more tender and a lot more susceptible to drying out,” Thomas said. “We're just trying to keep that surface moist because that's where you need it for when you're harvesting.”

We watched how workers harvest the turf with machines that dig up the grass and about an inch of its roots. Workers then spread compost to help grass roots grow new blades. They aerate to help water go deeper in the newly bare soilThey’ll repeat that process once new growth begins. The watering doesn’t stop.

“The main question for groundwater districts is how do you determine how much water a person owns per year under their property?” Totten said.

The Lost Pines Conservation Board will need to figure that out for Thomas Turfgrass. The turf grass company's leaders filed a request for a permit to expand its operation. The request shows a withdrawal of 3,950 acre-feet a year.

"This is equal to an irrigation duty of about 48.87 in/yr for 970 acres, and represents the irrigation needs in dry years," William Hutchison, Ph.D., P.E., P.G., wrote in an independent application review.

According to a Texas A&M report on turf grass water management, the request for 48.87 inches per year would fall within what is needed for growth.

"On an annual basis, warm season grasses will use 40 to 60 inches of water per year, depending on the availability of water. A well watered bermudagrass fairway will use about 60 inches of water per year, or 1.6 million gallons per acre. The same fairway could be maintained in equally good condition with about 40 inches of water, a 33% savings in water alone. In addition, energy needed to pump the water, wear on the equipment and fertilizer losses are also significantly reduced," the report shows.

To minimize harm to neighbors, the district’s draft permit shows it may cut that request by more than half and add three monitoring wells.

Totten wouldn’t comment on pending permits.

“It's very, very difficult for the district to flat out say 'no' to a permit because, you know, whoever is applying, in theory, they own the land and the water rights under the land," Totten said.

The Lost Pines district passed new permitting rules in June, limiting large-volume permits. The district is also working on a program to help people mitigate damage due to nearby groundwater production. The board is set to vote on the Thomas Turfgrass permit on Wednesday.

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