Trees along U.S. 281 between Marble Falls and Burnet are often covered with rock dust from aggregate mining operations close to the road. Fermin Ortiz, who lives near Kingsland, fears allowing commercial dredging in any of the Highland Lakes will further industrialize an area known for its wildlife and beauty and dependent on tourism dollars. Staff photo by Brigid Cooley
Some residents aren’t sold on the long-term effectiveness of the Lower Colorado River Authority’s new Highland Lakes Dredge and Fill Ordinance, which was approved at the LCRA’s board meeting Nov. 17. The ordinance creates a permitting process as well as rules for commercial businesses interested in mining sand from the lakes, replacing an almost year-long moratorium on issuing permits.
“They now have a tiger by the tail,” said Fermin Ortiz, who asked the LCRA board Nov. 17 to extend the mining and dredging moratorium indefinitely. “It feels pretty good when (the tiger) is running away from you, but when it turns on you, well, then it’s not going to feel so good.”
“The simple fix would have been to say ‘no’ by continuing the moratorium instead of saying ‘we may say yes’ with the ordinance,” Ortiz said. “Again, it’s not about one company or permit. It’s about opening the lakes up to this industry and the industrialization of the lakes.”
Ortiz and others against commercial dredging in the area rented a bus to take them to the Nov. 17 meeting. By a vote of 8-6, the LCRA Board of Directors approved the ordinance and a provision geared toward commercial operations removing sand for resale. The new ordinance goes into effect in January 2022, but Texans for Responsible Aggregate Mining is not stopping its effort to protect the lakes from commercial dredging.
“This isn’t about one APO (aggregate production operation), one permit,” Ortiz said. “If they’re allowed to come in at (CR) 309, they’ll want to come in all over.”
The number of APOs is growing on U.S. 281 between Marble Falls and Burnet and along Texas 71 from U.S. 281 through Spicewood, Ortiz said.
“You can’t drive from Marble Falls to Burnet with your windows open anymore,” he said, referring to the dust and sand kicked up by APOs along 281 north of Marble Falls.
He and others don’t want to see something similar happen around the lakes.
Looking over LCRA’s new ordinance, Ortiz acknowledged some good points to the regulations. Under the new rules, before a company can apply for and get a commercial dredging/mining permit from the LCRA, it must first obtain all other relevant permits from other entities, including federal and state permits, real estate agreements, and other applicable LCRA permits.
“They have to get permits from the (Army) Corps of Engineers, the (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality), and Texas Parks and Wildlife (Department) before they can apply and get a permit from the LCRA,” Ortiz said. “Right there, I think there’s the idea that you probably couldn’t get all those permits or want to go through all that to get one. But what happens if a company does? What happens if the LCRA grants a permit?”
Inspection of the sites and enforcement are major concerns for Ortiz.
“We tried to tell them that you don’t have the staff to keep up with these,” Ortiz said. “If you read the ordinance, it almost relies on self-reporting. With an APO, they will tell you what you want to hear. But when they have a violation, they’ll keep on going until you catch them.”
Nearby residents will bear the burden of having to report suspected violations, he explained.
The LCRA has already added staff and will add more as the permit process begins, LCRA Executive Vice President of Water John Hofmann told the board at the Nov. 17 meeting.
“LCRA will conduct regular inspections of these operations, and will respond to self-reported incidents and reports from the public,” the authority said in a statement.
The fight isn’t with the LCRA, Ortiz pointed out, though it plays an important role.
“They did what they thought was best,” he said. “I don’t agree with it, but I respect it. They put a lot of positive things in the ordinance.”
He worries that an APO could eventually land an LCRA permit under the ordinance, opening the door to more commercial dredging projects that will eventually harm the quality of life in the area.
“I think (the LCRA) missed an opportunity to protect our Highland Lakes by just keeping the moratorium,” he said.