FLORENCE — Bob Faulkner already has lowered his well’s pump 80 feet farther down because of a decade’s worth of drawdown of the aquifer supplying water to Florence residents. He may have to lower it another 100 feet next year if projections in a geologist’s recent report prove correct.
“I know we’re going to lose our water; it’s just a matter of time,” Faulkner said.
Water is paramount in a host of potential issues surrounding the new Asphalt Inc. LLC aggregate quarry and asphalt plant site just east of Florence at 10957 Farm-to-Market 487 in Williamson County.
One independent assessment by a geologist at LRE Water LLC asserts Asphalt Inc. wells are capable of emptying as much as 63 million gallons of water out of the Middle Trinity Aquifer in a year. The projections are based on the maximum usage permitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Laura Colburn lives about a mile away from the plant. “I’m concerned that our aquifer could be completely drained within a year,” she said, referring to projections in the LRE Water study.
“Sixty-three million gallons is an enormous amount of water, and our aquifer cannot sustain that,” Colburn said. “You get to a point where you can’t go deeper.”
So far, Asphalt Inc. crews have drilled two wells currently used for dust control. The wells are capable of producing thousands of gallons of water an hour, but management said Jan. 26 they likely will not need that amount of water.
Troy Carter, operations manager, maintains the company is behaving responsibly and intends to be at the site for decades.
“We understood when we came to this area that water is scarce and we would have to give it plenty of attention,” he said.
Part of the plan is construction of a large pond capable of collecting 40 million gallons of rainwater and runoff from the site, “which will be the majority of our usage.” The pond will be lined so the only water lost will be through evaporation.
He said 2 to 5 inches of rain would be enough to fill the pond, “and then we just have to maintain it.”
Asphalt Inc. has spent more than $1 million on a filtration system to pull sand and clay out of the water used to wash aggregate, Carter said.
“The majority of the water that goes through the plant will be reused, so if all works well, we’ll not have to touch the wells,” he said.
Recycling and reusing water is normal for many asphalt plants and aggregate quarries.
“These operations try to recycle as much water as possible, and a pond lined with something impermeable can hold water pretty well, although there is a high evaporation rate during the summer,” said hydrogeologist Michael Keester with LRE Water and the author of the Florence report.
Carter pointed out many other rock quarries are in the area.
“If you compare our site to any other industrial development, we’re certainly not any worse,” Carter said.
Still, residents are skeptical.
“We’re not going to be able to see if they’re actually recycling the water because it’s private property, and who (from the state) is going to go in and check?” Faulkner asked.
The environmental lawyer hired by at least one Florence resident said recycling water is not a regulatory requirement and it is up to Asphalt Inc. to keep its word.
“TCEQ is not going to be out at the site doing water balance studies to see if they actually are recycling 92 percent of their water,” said J.D. Head on Jan. 30.
Head, a partner with Austin-based firm Fritz, Byrne, Head & Gilstrap PLLC, has been practicing environmental law for 37 years.
The TCEQ is empowered to “conduct routine investigations of regulated entities,” said Andrew Keese, TCEQ media relations specialist, on Jan. 26.
However, he said, because quarries are excluded from the “definition of a facility” in the Texas Clean Air Act, “the TCEQ does not have jurisdiction to regulate mines, quarries, any associated blasting or to conduct any investigation of mines, quarries, or blasting.”
Quarry owners are prohibited from “creating or maintaining a nuisance,” he said.
Some people say TCEQ oversight is not enough to keep the state’s aquifers healthy.
“Aquifers are a serious concern” across the entire state, Head said.
“TCEQ regulations of the rock crusher do not allow, in my view, significant public participation. You can comment, but there is no opportunity for a contested hearing,” he said. “The regulations on the books provide for the safety of residents if the TCEQ actually enforced them.”
Head and Keester both mentioned the value of groundwater conservation districts.
“It’s the only way to regulate groundwater withdrawal. (In Florence, without a groundwater conservation district), anybody can put a well in the ground and pump as much as they want and nobody can do anything about it,” Head said.
Head said it is known in law as “right of capture,” and is based on a 1907 Texas Supreme Court decision that has never been overruled.
“The law basically is that even if Asphalt Inc. sucked the aquifer dry, residents would have limited cause of action,” Head said. “He who has the longest straw and the biggest pump can take what they want.”
A groundwater conservation district would give people more say through members of the board of directors. “They would have an opportunity to comment and go to meetings,” he said.
The TCEQ said it is responsive to complaints.
“We consider this to be a core mission of the agency and take the handling of complaints seriously, and residents are encouraged to submit complaints,” Keese said. “TCEQ’s goal is clean air, clean water, and the safe management of waste.”
Keese said the permit registration was reviewed and is “in accordance with the applicable state and federal law, policy and procedures, and the agency’s mission to protect the state’s human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development.”
The LRE Water study, conducted at the expense of a Florence resident in December, includes analysis of current water levels in the aquifer, historic drawdowns, and the potential effects of pumping 400 gallons a minute, or 24,000 gallons an hour, from four wells combined. One well is capable of producing 100 gallons of water a minute.
“Per the (TCEQ) permit documents, we assumed the annual groundwater production would correspond to the rock crusher maximum operation of 2,640 hours per year resulting in an annual production maximum of 63,360,000 gallons from the four wells” possible at the site, according to the LRE Water report.
The Middle Trinity Aquifer has become stressed in the past few decades.
“There’s been quite a bit of water level decline,” Keester said. Between 2006 and 2014 levels declined 70 feet, and “within the last three or four years has declined 150 feet because of additional use of groundwater in the northwestern portion of Williamson County.”
Recharge of the aquifer is “very slow,” Keester said. “Dating of the water shows the water to be thousands of years old. But water can move from one place to another, causing water levels to rise (faster than the recharge rate) so it’s difficult to have a definitive answer. Water levels could come up some, but not all the way.”
He said people did not foresee an asphalt plant in their neighborhood.
“People developed their properties for their homes and had domestic wells, not anticipating a large amount of production coming in and draining the aquifer faster than what they were currently using,” Keester said. “There are some areas where this kind of operation creates a problem, and other areas with plenty of water for such an operation.”
It all goes back to the wants and needs of human beings.
“I think the aquifers in Texas are in danger from all kinds of activity, including export of water from rural to urban areas and over-pumping of water used for fracking,” Head said, referring to the oil drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing. “There’s no doubt that our aquifers are being stressed because they’re being mined to support the needs of an increasing population.”