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John and Sue Gibbs

John and Sue Gibbs' once-fertile ranchland is now under water much of the year, attracting alligators where grass once grew. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The Dead Zone - Part Three

San Antonio Current
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 18, 2003

Part 3 of the Current's series on the Guadalupe River.
To meet Bexar County's water demands, the GBRA is looking to Victoria County - at the risk of destroying ecosystems and livelihoods.

John Gibbs stands by the special barge he built last year on his 1,000- acre ranch south of Victoria and grimaces. "I had to build this so I could feed my cattle," he says in a soft, sullen voice.

With the barge, he explains, he could load four round bales of hay and motor down the temporary bayou to areas of his ranch where cattle were stranded. "I just worked my rear end off and wore out my knees trying to load into that boat."

Gibbs' 1,000-acre ranch lies below the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, about 25 miles from the mouth of San Antonio Bay. Until mid-June 2002, it was dry and lush with thick clumps of grasses, but for the next nine months, much of his land was under water. As Gibbs drove around his land in a pickup this summer, he surveyed the damage. The palmetto palms were thriving. So were Chinese tallow and willow. The oaks, some standing, some fallen, some as tall as 60 feet, weren't doing so well.

"All this was big oaks," Gibbs says, waving his arm all around. "They're dead now. If they're not dead, they're dying. See the water marks on the fence post? We knew it'd flood. This is river bottom. But not for nine months.

"Bill West [of the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority] says it's been this way for millions of years, but these big ol' trees didn't grow in the water."

The Gibbs bought the ranch along the Guadalupe bottoms in 1989. He leased it for 15 years before that from the previous owner and ran cattle - long enough to see a slow degradation in the land. "This used to be farmland. But for the past 15 years it's got worse and worse. In '87 we were flooded for two months. In '90, '91 it'd been flooded for two months. In '98 it was six months. This year was nine."

Gibbs and his wife Sue, have been fighting the GBRA for more than a decade. With their neighbors, they have formed the Guadalupe-San Antonio River Valley Organization, petitioning local, state, and national authorities to hear their plight.

Gibbs remembers how it used to be. "Before dams were built, the main channel feeding Guadalupe Bay and San Antone Bay was what I call an estuary where crabs and shrimp get their start. Guadalupe Bay and Mission Lake was all estuary. Green Lake was the largest tidal lake in Texas, full of trout and redfish."

A channel cut to divert freshwater to the Union Carbide plant and nearby farmers a half-century ago decimated the area's ecology. "They stopped the flow so the natural river couldn't clean itself out," Gibbs says. "Now it's depositing so much silt in Green Lake it doesn't reach the saltwater anymore. It's lost its productiveness. Very little nutrients and salts are getting into the delta."

The perils of a pipeline

The GBRA's solution is not one Gibbs is excited about accepting. "Bill West said, 'If we can't solve the problem, we'll buy the land.' Trouble is, we don't want to sell the land. This was the best place in the world until they fouled it up."

By the time the Guadalupe River reaches Victoria, its green-blue patina has turned a thick, viscous brown from 100 miles of blackland sediment. The river, broader and wider than upstream, is vital to the region, going back to the 19th century when Irish immigrants put down roots and started running cattle around Victoria, Goliad, Refugio and Cuero. O'Connors, Dunns, Fagans, McFaddins, and Welders, five and six generations down the line, still hold considerable sway in Victoria, thanks in no small part to significant deposits of gas and oil under that ranchland.

Water may be their next play.

South of Victoria, State Highway 239 cuts through the Fleming Prairie to link Goliad with Tivoli (or 'Tie-voh-lah' as the locals call it) near the lip of San Antonio Bay. Parts of the two-lane blacktop divide O'Connor land from Welder land.

At the center of the families' disagreement is the Lower Guadalupe Water Supply Project, the centerpiece of the Region L water plan. The GBRA, with the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and the San Antonio River Authority, wants to build a 127-mile pipeline from below the Guadalupe River's confluence with the San Antonio River southeast of Victoria back to San Antonio and Bexar County. Beginning in 2011, the pipeline will deliver up to 289,000 acre feet of river water and groundwater a year, according to the GBRA, thereby reducing demand on the Edwards Aquifer.

The cost of the project is estimated at $785 million, considerably higher than the $475 million predicted two years ago. While the Guadalupe River would be the primary water source for the pipeline, groundwater would be used during droughts and/or low river flow. By 2050, if GBRA's projections are accurate, the pipeline will no longer carry river and groundwater, but desalinated water from the Gulf of Mexico. J.F. Welder Heirs Ltd., which oversees the family's business, has entered into agreements with the GBRA to lease 20,000 acres of land in Refugio County to sell groundwater to the GBRA and store water in reservoirs on their land. The arrangement would earn the family $4.5 million through 2012, according to planning documents.

But the O'Connors don't want to sell their groundwater. Nor do they want their neighbors, such as the Welders, selling water, although in Texas, without a local groundwater conservation district to regulate pumping, landowners can sell as much as they want to whomever they want.

"What's going to happen to our water wells?" asks D.M. O'Connor spokesman Bill Jones. "We've got hundreds of them. Are we going to have to drill deeper? It doesn't seem right that a ranching family that means so much to the economy and environment of the region is going to have their water taken from under them."

The Power of Water

The Guadalupe is ground zero in Texas' 21st-century water wars, with practically every fight directly tied to satisfying the needs of San Antonio's 1.5 million residents and the region's determination to grow the economy and the population. Four areas in particular tell of tale how contentious the quest for water really is:

Kinney County, where groundwater from the unregulated western portion of the Edwards Aquifer has been targeted by at least four water marketing/water mining companies with extensive ties to the political leadership of the state.

Canyon Lake, where the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) has applied to take twice as much water out of the lake than is currently being used, and to siphon from other sources, primarily in the Guadalupe River basin;

Victoria, where the GBRA, San Antonio River Authority, and SAWS are proposing to build the longest water pipeline in Texas all the way back to San Antonio;

San Antonio Bay and the Guadalupe Delta, where the river meets the sea, and where the state has thwarted efforts to set a minimum flow of water to ensure the health of the coastal fisheries and wildlife.

It isn't just the D.M. O'Connor interests, Jones says. "We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We're hearing from all kinds of people."

One bone of contention is just the amount of water the pipeline intends to take out of the area. When the proposal was first presented to the public, the project was scaled at 94,500 acre feet of water a year, Jones says. "All of a sudden, the permit application is for 289,000 acre feet. It's very difficult to assess."

[Bill West of the GBRA explained that the average take of river water would be around 30,000 acre feet a year; groundwater use would range from 14,000 to 40,000 acre feet. The 289,000 figure would be used only during the first year following a drought of record.]

"The GBRA says the pipeline will reduce San Antonio's dependence on the Edwards Aquifer, and by doing that, Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs will have an increased flow, so there will be more water in the river downstream," says Bill Jones. "We've questioned the rationale of this calculation. What happens in drought years? There's no margin of error. It scares the hell out of us."

The Welders' water resource manager, James Dodson, a biologist at the Coastal Studies Program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, calculates there is plenty of groundwater. Bill Jones understands the Welders' position. "The Welders feel like they're looking after the best interests of their family. We're looking out for interests of our family and the region. If the project doesn't work, Du Pont, Dow, everyone is in trouble."

The O'Connors went public with their displeasure last January before the start of the 78th Texas Legislature, rolling out heavy public relations artillery at a press conference in Victoria. Representatives of the Coastal Conservation Association sportfishing group, the Independent Cattlemen's Association of Texas, the Calhoun County Shrimper's Association, and Mark Rose, the former executive director of the Lower Colorado River Authority (and Bill West's boss before West left to run the GBRA) stood around Jones.

At the press conference, Rose said the true intent of GBRA, SAWS, and SARA was "to take as much water from the Victoria area as they can ... unless the community unites to oppose this diversion application, this water will be taken away and never seen again in this part of Texas."

West dismisses the opponents as "a handful of folks down there who want to stand in the way of millions of people who need water." He chalks up the opposition to the pipeline to a combination of the property rights stigma, distrust of government including local groundwater districts, a dislike of San Antonio, the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard), and a generational split between younger people interested in their water rights and an old crowd that isn't.

Jones vows to keep the pressure on.

"They'll start building in four years," Jones says. "We want them to slow down. It's not what you can see. It's what you can't see. We've got some fuzzy math going on down here."

Art Dohmann

Balancing the impact of exporting groundwater with the expense of desalinization concerns Art Dohmann, head of the Goliad Groundwater District. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Ecology, livelihoods threatened

On April 15, about 100 people, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, filled the gallery of a federal district courtroom in downtown Victoria to discuss flooding in the Guadalupe delta, where the Guadalupe River meets the San Antonio River below Victoria on its last 50 miles to San Antonio Bay and the Gulf Coast.

The subject of the meeting, largely forgotten in the fuss over the GBRA's pipeline proposal, was the GBRA's stewardship of the river. It is an extremely important issue to the owners of more than 25,000 acres in Victoria County that have been flooded for nine straight months, rendering the property worthless. The long stretch of inundation is largely attributed to the record floods in 1998 and 2002, but anecdotal evidence indicates flooding has become more frequent over the past half-century.

Some pointed fingers to diversion dams and historic logjams in the river that have never been dislodged. The dams, initially built in the '30s and '40s to irrigate rice fields, are maintained by the GBRA and Texas Parks & Wildlife. Although rice farming is no longer sustainable without heavy federal subsidies, the dams continue to divert river water to a Union Carbide plant. Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish. The lack of fresh water is killing the bay and ruining livelihoods.

The GBRA's Bill West observed the delta has been changing course and wandering for centuries, adding "And it will continue to meander for millions of years."

The critics contended otherwise. If GBRA can't steward this part of the river, why believe its promises about the pipeline, which sounds more like a pipe dream?

A broad range of water interests were represented among the 70 invitees to a closed session - landowners, seven of the nine GBRA directors, representatives from the Texas Water Development Board, Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, Texas Parks & Wildlife, county judges, shrimpers, the Army Corps of Engineers, and Ken Schustereit, the water activist who led the defeat of a groundwater district for Victoria.

"We realized this was far bigger than the ranches. It impacts the economy and the ecology. We started hearing from farmers and other ranchers. We're hearing from all kinds of people."
- Bill Jones

Using graphs and slides, Bill West presented a history of engineering and water flow on the lower part of the river, revealing an ugly truth: What often solves problems upstream exacerbates them downstream. This is a tough river to steward, especially above the delta. "It doesn't take much of a flood event to have the river go out of its banks at several locations," West explained.

John and Sue Gibbs were given time to make a presentation too. Sue Gibbs acknowledged the havoc that nature can wreak. "But we've reached a point where continuous flooding is no longer a natural occurrence. A nine-month flood is not a natural occurrence."

The Gibbs' once fertile cropland now attracts alligators. "Some of you have been told the land we live on is worthless swampland," Gibbs said. "It's beautiful land - far from being worthless and worthy of being saved.

"Our land should not line the pockets of those in the water business," Gibbs added emphatically. "We should be able to use our private property. Those appointed to manage from the lake to the bay, their responsibilities do not stop at the saltwater barrier dam. Trees, some of them hundreds of years old, are dying because they've been under water so long."

Wesley Blevins, representing shrimpers in Calhoun County, also spoke. "Water is going in the wrong direction," he said. "San Antonio Bay is still fresh, and we don't have a flood. Salinity on the west side of the bay is increasing. We need those places opened back up and the water getting back into all the right places. Millions of dollars have been destroyed because this is the most productive bay on the Texas coast. This bay is getting so messed up, you can't hardly fish."

Out of balance

"I'm the most hated man in Victoria County," Ken Schustereit says by way of introduction. A big man with a beard dressed in blue work overalls and Coast Guard gimme cap, the 47-year-old Schustereit is leader of the Water Research Group in Victoria, an ad hoc organization that led the opposition against a groundwater district for Victoria in 2001, and has since allied itself with environmentalists and angry landowners against the pipeline project and the GBRA.

Critics, including the landowners, contend the diversion not only causes more flooding upstream, but reduces freshwater flow into the river delta which functions as a critical aquatic nursery for coastal wildlife, shrimp and fish.

He's directing criticism where it is most needed, he says. "What I've tried to get across is the three prime movers in the Region L - San Antonio, GBRA, and SARA- all three have problems with ethics, administrations, and corruption."

In his perfect world, Schustereit would like the diversion dams on the Guadalupe below Victoria to be removed, the logjams unjammed, and have the GRBA audited and revamped. "Water is power, economic development, so San Antonio can grow beyond the capacity of its natural resource. Downstream it's no different," Schustereit says. "Why sell water out of Lavaca County, the number two cattle producing county in the state of Texas and risk killing cattle production to promote the growth of San Antonio? If you dry up Lavaca County, who's going to feed you?"

If nothing else, his complaints are having an impact. A June meeting of the Water Research Group attracted 375 people including State Senator Ken Armbrister, a Democrat from Victoria. Armbrister told the gathering that the pipeline is not a done deal, and proposed Schustereit be added to a committee studying the pipeline, which has been done.

Despite Armbrister's overtures, Schustereit remains unmoved. "When you and I were in the second grade, we were taught that occasional flooding of river valleys left nutrients that made the soil more productive. River bottom property in my grandfather's day made a man rich. River bottom property in this basin today is a curse. Farm and ranch land has been turned into a boggy marsh. Our wetlands are being artificially expanded to drive people off their property. A lot of property owners here are flooded half the year all the way to Victoria. This is the resource that the GBRA and SARA are supposed to be stewarding."

Ken Schustereit

"I'm the most hated man in Victoria County," says Ken Schustereit, who has led the opposition against a groundwater district in his area. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

The growing demand

The head of the Goliad Groundwater District, part of Region L that spans 21 counties from Calhoun to Uvalde, sits in his home office, fishing neatly arranged folders out of his desk. Art Dohmann, his face still flush from doing chores outdoors, his thinning gray hair matted to his pate, peers through his aviator glasses at a note he pulls out of his western shirt, then refers to a folder. It's a chart of population projections for Region L, 21 counties in South Central Texas the state has designated for water planning purposes. According to the chart, in 2000, 2 million people are living within Region L. By 2050, that number is expected to double.

"How are we going to service this?" Dohmann asks, shaking the paper. "I recognize and support a 50-year plan. Unfortunately, every time we turn around, something comes up that doesn't square with this population projection."

Dohmann says that desalinization of Gulf Coast water has been proposed to meet water needs upstream. The technology exists, but desalinization is expensive.

"Groundwater here is more available and it's relatively cheap. It's two-thirds the cost of desal water. But the impact of drawing water from here over 50 years - what is the cost of that to the economy of the region, to the tax base, and the economy of the whole state?"

The Texas Water Development Board has rejected the Goliad Groundwater District's population projections and its desire to reduce the amount of water exported out of the county. Schustereit cites the board's action as proof that local districts, the state's touted method of governing groundwater in lieu of addressing the antiquated Rule of Capture, really don't have final authority in how their water is used.

"It's been phenomenal what's happened in the last 10 years and we expect it to continue. The key is, this water allowance. If we're not careful and this county continues to grow, we've got to have the ability to support that economic development. We talk about a 50-year plan, but so many things that happen, we're looking at today.

"People say, 'We've got plenty of water, why are you trying to restrict what we can sell?'

"Well, we've got to make sure we'll have water to accommodate growth for the next 30 or 40 years," Dohman says. "We need to be very prudent to take care of today and tomorrow."

Part 1: A Force of Nature
Part 2: Down The Drain
Part 3: The Dead Zone
Part 4: Fresh Water Fight

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