JUNCTION, Texas (KXAN) — A private dam proposed on the South Llano River, a major tributary to the Highland Lakes, is the center of a debate in the Hill Country this week as a public hearing set for Thursday evening approaches.
It all started in 2018 when then-CEO of Phillips 66, Gregory Garland, filed an application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, to dam up the river and create a private pool.
But under extraordinary drought and low river flow conditions, neighbors are worried about the strain this may put on a scarce resource.
“It’s too depressing to see it in the condition that it’s in right now,” Linda Fawcett said from the shores of the South Llano River in Junction, the water source for the community of 2,500 residents.
Fawcett has been coming to the South Llano since she was a child, and now serves as the President of the Llano River Watershed Alliance. She told KXAN the identity of many residents is intertwined with the river.
“The common link is how important this river is to their psyche, their very sense of self, their memories, their legacy,” Fawcett said.
But an extraordinarily hot, dry summer has pushed the City of Junction into stage four water restrictions.
“It never rains as much here as it does everywhere else,” Fawcett said.
The South Llano River at Flat Rock is currently flowing at just 25 cubic feet per second, roughly half of its typical August flow rate and the site’s lowest flow since Oct. 6, 2018, according to USGS data.
The proposed size of Garland’s private recreational pool, filed under Waterstone Creek LLC, is 12 acre-feet of water — roughly 3.9 million gallons. That’s enough water to cover an entire football field with water nine feet deep.
KXAN obtained this satellite image from Garland’s application of the proposed reservoir overlaid on the South Llano River, suggesting a dam wide enough to stretch across the entire channel.
The Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA, told KXAN the landowner has a 10-year contract to purchase 16 acre-feet of water per year from the state agency. A hydrologist estimates the landowner is purchasing this quantity of water from the LCRA to keep the impoundment full and offset evaporation losses, even though this water is upstream of the Highland Lakes reservoirs from which the LCRA typically distributes water.
The LCRA contract yields a total of more than 50 million gallons of water over the 10-year period that could otherwise flow into the Highland Lakes. That amount equals enough water to fill Austin’s Deep Eddy Pool 86 times.
TCEQ’s draft permit for the project states the landowner cannot store water during low-flow conditions, as it may prevent water from reaching downstream senior water right holders.
A hydrologist told KXAN when a reservoir is full, the landowner would allow excess water to spill over and travel downstream. But if the reservoir is not full during prolonged drought conditions, any water that flows in is stored in the reservoir even though the water legally belongs to someone downstream with senior rights.
We tried to get answers to how the landowner would navigate this problem, but were unable to reach Mr. Garland after leaving multiple messages.
“People are upset,” Fawcett said. “And that’s saying it lightly.”
“It’s a public river. And it should be for everybody, not just for one person to dam up for their own personal use,” Kingsland resident Stephanie West said.
County Commissioners from Llano, Mason and Kimble counties passed resolutions in 2022 urging the TCEQ to deny the dam permit, citing drought conditions and concerns about river flow.
Part of the outrage in the Hill Country stems from how the public comment period has been handled. According to the TCEQ, the homeowner seeking the permit must choose a newspaper to announce the application and public comment. Garland chose to publish in the Rocksprings Record and Texas Mohair Weekly — a small Edwards County publication — in May 2022.
The upcoming TCEQ public comment meeting is scheduled in Rocksprings, per TCEQ policy that the meeting must take place in the same county in which the dam is proposed. Rocksprings is a two-hour drive for concerned residents in Llano, a community of 3,300 that relies on the Llano River for water. Rocksprings is approximately three hours from Austin.
State Representative Andrew Murr, who represents Edwards County, urged TCEQ in a July letter to consider “a more central and easily accessible location.”
Landowners along the South Llano River said their biggest concern, if TCEQ approves this private dam, is that more homeowners along the Highland Lakes tributary will follow suit, further straining a river that is already running low.
“It could have serious impacts on flow,” said Marisa Bruno, Water Program Manager with the Hill Country Alliance. “As of [Tuesday] morning, the LCRA is measuring that all of the tributaries besides the Llano are contributing zero flow, which means that all of the water right now going into the Highland Lakes is coming from the Llano River.”
“If the state grants this permit and allows his private lake to be built up there and impound twelve acre-feet of water, it sets a precedent,” Llano Mayor Marion Bishop told KXAN over the phone.
KXAN attempted to get ahold of Houston-based Garland, who proposes building the dam at his Edwards County property, to ask him about these concerns. We were not able to reach anyone from the property gate.
We then tried reaching out by phone to cell phone numbers registered under Garland and his wife. One number had been disconnected, and we left multiple voicemails on the other. We will update this story when we hear back.
The TCEQ grants permits for private dams like the one Garland proposes. The three TCEQ commissioners are appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Since filing his application in 2018, Garland has donated at least $10,000 to Gov. Abbott’s campaign as an individual, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.
Phillips 66, where Garland still serves as Executive Chairman of the Board, has a political action committee that has donated more than $50,000 to Abbott in that time.
For perspective, the governor’s top donors contribute more than $1 million each.
Privately-Owned Dams in Texas
Constructed since 2017
Source: Army Core of Engineers, Center for Geospatial Technology/Texas Tech University • Map created by Christopher Adams, KXAN
A Flourish map
Since 2017, a total of 10 private dams have been constructed in Texas.
According to TCEQ, a private dam application has two phases — an administrative review and a technical review.
During the administrative review, the Water Rights Permitting Program, or WRP, ensures the applicant completed all necessary steps on the application form. Once complete, the technical review includes a review to determine if there are impacts to other water rights or to the environment. TCEQ determined this proposal would not affect other water rights nor the environment.
The TCEQ public comment meeting will be in Edwards County Thursday, Aug. 10 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be held at the Rocksprings ISD school auditorium, located at 201 U.S. 377 North in Rocksprings.
TCEQ says a second public meeting will be held, although the location, date and time of that meeting has not yet been finalized.
Public comments can be submitted online referencing TCEQ Permit No. WRPERM 13524. TCEQ tells KXAN the organization looks at all public comments and considers those comments when making a final decision on the application.
A Change.org petition against construction of the dam had amassed more than 3,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning.
“We’ve got a lot of grassroots organizations that are not sitting back any more,” Fawcett said. “Whatever starts here, trickles all the way down to there. And trickle is not such a metaphor anymore.”