Llano River communities fight former oil executive’s plan for a private dam
Texas has thousands of private dams, but a former oil executive’s application to build one on the South Llano River would be the first in the watershed for recreational use. Opponents fear it would harm the river’s health and encourage more private dams.
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JUNCTION — Linda Fawcett's ancestral home in this West Texas town holds a 6-feet-by-4-feet oil painting depicting her biggest fear: the Llano River going dry.
The painting features a waterfall cascading at the top, an hourglass marking the passage of time in the middle, and a barren desert with a skeletal figure below, symbolizing life when a body of water disappears.
"In my mind, we are transitioning that way. The skeleton represents death," Fawcett, a 68-year-old artist turned activist, said of the canvas she painted in 2003. “I've long worried about us running out of water.”
The Llano River begins in Kimble County, where the North and South Llano rivers meet, then flows roughly 100 miles eastward, passing through Mason and Llano Counties before feeding into the Colorado River.
About 60 miles southwest of Fawcett’s home, Greg Garland, the former CEO of the Houston-based energy company Phillips 66, is seeking permission from the state to dam the South Llano River on his ranch in Edwards County.
Five years after Garland filed an application for the dam — which would create a pond roughly equal to six olympic-sized swimming pools — the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is evaluating the proposal. At a public meeting about the application that TCEQ held in August, Garland said the pool’s purpose was to promote more wildlife and fish on his property. He did not respond to requests for comment.
The TCEQ said earlier this summer it would schedule a second meeting for residents to share their opinions about the proposed permit, but has yet to pick a location, date and time for the meeting. Concerned residents can still submit public comments to the agency.
And lots of people are concerned. Residents living along the river, environmental advocates and local officials are fighting the dam permit, which they say would set a precedent that could start a domino effect of property owners building more private dams, which could alter the river's natural flow and send less water into the Highland Lakes.
“The river is literally life blood to the community,” said Fawcett, who’s also the president of the Llano River Watershed Alliance. “This could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The state already has thousands of private dams, including five on the Llano watershed, all built before 1980 for irrigation. The watershed also has four public dams used for recreation and to supply water to local residents. But Garland's would be the first private dam built on the Llano River and its main tributaries since 1976 — and the first built for recreation purposes like swimming, boating and fishing.
Garland's application through Houston-based Waterstone Creek LLC has requirements that ensure the environment is not harmed, said Victoria Cann, a TCEQ spokesperson.
Fawcett has been visiting Junction since she was a little girl — she remembers riding horses along the river with her father — and moved into her parents’ former home three years ago.
In her monochromatic blue-gray outfit, Fawcett says she’s been driving her four-wheeler to the river to fill jugs to water her garden and watched the ongoing drought taking its toll — the Llano is lower than normal, with puddles along the bank that mark where the river has retreated. In August, the North Llano near Junction had no water flow, while the South Llano River at Junction was flowing as low as 26.7 cubic feet per second, about half its natural flow.
At the same time, more people are moving to the rural parts of Kimble County, buying ranches or lots in rural subdivisions and adding to the number of properties drawing water from the river.
That’s created some tension between longtime residents and newcomers.
“I’ve come to resent the outside people that want to bring wherever they lived with them, instead of accepting this area the way it is,” Fawcett said. “People that have enough money are used to control things and they dam up rivers.”
About 32 miles northeast of Fawcett’s home, Richard Taylor lives on the 832-acre Blue Mountain Peak Ranch in Mason, which he bought in 2001 after working in the tech industry. Two enormous longhorns greet visitors at the entrance and deer roam freely through its wooded, rolling hills. The ranch is located about four miles from the Llano River, where Taylor and his partner take frequent kayak trips.
Taylor says he’s against the private dam because he fears that it will slow the river’s flow and impact the entire Llano watershed.
"Leave things alone, especially rivers and creeks and streams, [that] will be the best thing for everybody," he said.
More than half of Texas dams are privately owned
Texas has about 8,000 dams, according to the TCEQ, and about 62% are privately owned. Of the private dams, nearly 600, or about 12%, are on the state’s 14 major rivers such as the Rio Grande, Colorado, Pecos, Nueces, Brazos, Trinity and Guadalupe; the Llano River is considered a secondary stream by the state.
Some of the first private dams in Texas were built on the Nueces River in 1911 for irrigation purposes. Since then, about 21% of private dams built in Texas list recreation as their main purpose.
Before approving a new private dam, the TCEQ’s role is to determine whether the proposed dam would affect residents or the nearby environment. Although a final permit has not been issued, a state draft permit for Garland’s project shows that if it’s approved, Garland’s Waterstone Creek LLC would be allowed to take up to 12 acre-feet of water per year — or nearly 4 million gallons — from the South Llano River.
Garland’s Waterstone Creek LLC has entered a contract with the Lower Colorado River Authority, a nonprofit that manages water resources in the lower Colorado River watershed, that would charge it $155 per acre-foot of water annually.
Clara Tuma, a spokesperson for the LCRA, said a contract is required because Waterstone Creek would take water that would otherwise flow into the Highland Lakes. It would only take effect if the TCEQ approves the permit application.
Garland would need to check the stream flows of the river each season and if the river's flow is too low he would need to let some water out of his pond, according to TCEQ’s draft permit.
But Nathan Glavy, a technical director at the environmental nonprofit Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance said the TCEQ doesn’t check that a private dam owner is actually releasing water when they should.
“We’d have to put our trust in him,” he said.
Cann, the TCEQ spokesperson, said the agency isn't required to regularly inspect private dams and their water flow, but does inspections "as needed, typically in response to complaints."
All along the Llano River, local officials have been speaking out for years against the possible privatization of a section of a public river.
Kimble, Mason and Llano counties, which all rely on the river as their water source, passed resolutions in 2022 urging the TCEQ to deny the dam permit, citing the ongoing drought. A private dam “will seize the flow during sustained dry periods” and “have an adverse effect on the downstream flow of the river,” the resolutions said.
“Anything that could possibly impede the flow of the water in the rivers is a big concern to Kimble County residents,” Kimble County Judge Hal A. Rose said in an email.
Llano Mayor Marion Bishop said that his city, which also gets its water from the river, “cannot endure such diversion of water along the Llano” because the river’s flow has continued to slow — especially during the past two years of drought.
Bishop said the city’s more than 3,300 residents were asked to conserve by watering lawns only once a week this summer and not using water to wash vehicles or refill swimming pools. He said the city used an average of about 800,000 gallons per day this summer, nearly 50% less than it used more than a decade ago.
He said the city can’t ask citizens to cut back on water use and support putting a private dam on the river.
"One person may be benefiting from that dam,” he said. “But how many thousands of people down the river are being deprived because of it?”
Back in Junction, South Llano River State Park, known for spring-fed waters that the LCRA says are among the "most pristine water bodies in the state," attracted about 63,800 visitors last year, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In 2018 the park generated $809,000 from non-local visitors, according to the agency’s economic impact study.
The river is “central to the identity of the park and the area. It is what sustains the park,” said park Superintendent Cody Edwards, who lives with his family in a rustic home built in 1877 at the park. The agency spent years stocking this part of the river with 700,000 Guadalupe Bass, the state fish, which helped restore the species’ numbers in the Llano River.
TPWD doesn’t take a stance on proposed dam permits, but informs the state on the potential impacts on natural resources. In this case, the agency said lower flow in the river can increase water temperature and harm fish habitat.
Edwards said preserving the river's flow is important for protecting the bass and the entire river ecosystem.
“The Texas identity is unique and I think that our natural heritage is an integral part of that, so protecting [the Llano River] is protecting who we are,” he said.
Victoria Stavish contributed to this story. Greta Díaz González Vázquez contributed visuals and audio storytelling.
Disclosure: The Lower Colorado River Authority and Texas Parks And Wildlife Department have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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