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LCRA approves commercial dredging rules

Save Lake LBJ protests commercial dredging

Members of Save Lake LBJ donned white shirts to show unity while riding a charter bus to the LCRA meeting Nov. 17 in Austin, where they protested sand dredging in the lake. The group began loading onto the bus at 7 a.m. in the Walmart parking lot, 2700 U.S. 281 North in Marble Falls. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley

The Lower Colorado River Authority Board of Directors on Nov. 17 approved a measure that could permit commercial dredging on the Highland Lakes despite community calls against ending a moratorium on the practice.

The board passed the Highland Lakes Dredge and Fill Ordinance by a vote of 8-6 at its Wednesday meeting in Austin as well as modified the Highland Lakes Watershed Ordinance. 

“I think, at the end of the day, we do need some regulation,” said board Chair Timothy Timmerman. 

He added that what gives him some comfort about the new ordinance is that a commercial dredging operator must get permission from affected lake property owners before the permitting process can be completed.

Before the vote took place, a group of residents spoke to the board requesting that the LCRA continue its current moratorium on commercial dredging on the Highland Lakes, particularly Lake LBJ, and cut the permit for such work from the new ordinance.

Under the ordinance, the LCRA has three standards of dredging:

  • Tier I, which basically applies to homeowners or property owners doing upkeep; 
  • Tier II, which is typically related to maintenance and repair or construction of infrastructure and utilities; 
  • and Tier III, which is described as commercial operations removing sediment and materials for resale.

About 50 people showed up to the board meeting in opposition to commercial dredging, and around 5,000 people signed a petition requesting the board remove the Tier III permit.

Llano County commissioners Mike Sandoval and Peter Jones both spoke against commercial dredging operations on the Highland Lakes.

Fermin Ortiz, a Llano County rancher and businessman, pointed out to the board that he and others opposing the industrialization of the Highland Lakes aren’t anti-dredging, particularly after a flood when dredging must be done. They oppose commercial operations due to the negative effects those could have on water quality, fish and wildlife, quality of life for residents, and safety.

“Tier III as written does not require a reclamation of the site, nor does it have any penalty for not bringing the area back to its original state,” Ortiz told the board. “That’s why we’re asking for the elimination of Tier III and a permanent ban on commercial dredging in our Highland Lakes. There is no right way to do the wrong thing.”

The issue of commercial dredging came to light in July 2020 when Collier Materials announced plans to place a Lake LBJ sand-dredging facility on private property off of County Road 309 in the Kingsland area near the Comanche Rancheria community. The announcement was met with pushback from a number of residents, businesses, and local leaders.

When the matter of permitting such an operation on Lake LBJ came before the LCRA, the authority in February put a moratorium on commercial dredging on the Highland Lakes. 

During the Nov. 17 meeting, LCRA Executive Vice President of Water John Hofmann explained that the reason staff asked for the moratorium was because the authority, at that time, had no rules in its Highland Lakes Watershed Ordinance to handle large, commercial operations like the one Collier proposed. The current guidelines, he said, were designed for smaller projects. 

In early 2021, the board directed LCRA staff to come up with rules to regulate commercial dredging and similar operations on the Highland Lakes. Over the past nine months, staff have worked on such rules, held several public meetings, and accepted public comments on the guidelines, making changes to the new ordinance as a result.

Those changes, however, didn’t go far enough for many who spoke before the board on Nov. 17, including Barbara Schmidt of Comanche Rancheria. 

“If you approve Tier III every time you issue a permit, what does LCRA really gain?” she asked. “I do not know. But what you gain on one end with such a permit you lose on the other end in decreased water quality, property values, safety, and quality of life. It is like feeding that dog on its own tail. It doesn’t improve the dog. And you are in effect unleashing on the Highland Lakes a hungry wolf pack of industrializers who are already howling at our door.”

Under the new ordinance, a Tier III applicant must meet all of the standards for Tier I and Tier II as well as nine additional standards not previously included in the watershed ordinance. It also allows the LCRA to consider the cumulative effect of several dredging operations.

Commercial entities under the Tier III permit can operate for three years with the possibility of a two-year extension. At that time, the permit ends. Commercial operators can, however, reapply and go through the entire permit process again.

LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson told the board that Tier III standards aren’t easy to fulfill.

“There’s some complexity to the process,” he said. 

One key stumbling block for prospective commercial operators is the requirement that they get permission from landowners with property going into the lake that is within a project’s limits or within 500 feet of a project’s limits. 

“They’re going to really need permission from anyone (their project) touches,” Wilson said. 

The permit also gives the LCRA recourse to stop work at a site if the operator isn’t following proper procedures, and the authority can even access daily fines. 

“There’s some good teeth in (the ordinance),” Wilson said.

The Highland Lakes Dredge and Fill Ordinance goes into affect Jan. 1, 2022.