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South Llano River gets Scenic Riverway designation, protection

South Llano River State Park

Tubers enjoy the pristine waters at South Llano River State Park. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department photo

A new Texas House bill designated the South Llano River as a Scenic Riverway, one of only two in the state. The title comes with protections and funding mechanisms to help conserve the pristine nature of the river amid controversy over a proposed private dam at its headwaters.

The South Llano River has been under intense scrutiny by opponents of a pending Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit application to build a private recreational dam in Edwards County. The dam would create a small lake on a ranch owned by Phillips 66 Executive Chairman Gregory C. Garland. The application was submitted under Waterstone Creek LLC, TCEQ permit number WRPERM 13524, which is under Garland’s name, in the spring of 2022

Dozens of concerned residents and local government officials voiced their opposition to the permit during a public meeting in Junction in August. 

“This legislation addresses the crucial issue of water quality protection, specifically targeting the water quality standards of the South Llano River,” reads a statement from state Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction), who authored House Bill 1688, which passed in the recent Texas legislative session and went into effect on Sept. 1. “Easily considered one of the cleanest rivers in Texas, these waters are the primary source of drinking water for the city of Junction and, consequently, a majority of all Kimble County residents. Downstream users also rely upon these waters for municipal, domestic, and livestock use.”

Murr represents Kimble and Llano counties as well as 14 other counties in central and west Texas. While HB 1688 focuses on Kimble County and Junction, its also impacts Llano, Burnet, and Travis counties, which rely upon water from the Llano River. 

The South Llano River was designated the Coke Stevenson Scenic Riverway, named after former Texas Gov. Coke Stevenson, who was from Kimble County and served from 1941-47. John Graves Scenic Riverway on the Brazos River is the second of the two scenic state rivers to be protected under Subchapter M of the Texas Water Code.

With the new designation, the Lower Colorado River Authority, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and TCEQ will collaborate to conduct bi-annual testing of the river’s water quality. It also gives the state power to deny permitting to any quarrying operation that would be built in close proximity to the river and require extensive permitting for any already existing quarrying operations. No quarries are currently operating on the river. 

HB 1688 could also provide additional funding for the preservation of the South Llano River. If any violations of the waterway protections were to occur, fines and fees collected would go toward restoring the banks and beds of the river.

“Modeled as a pilot program, the Scenic Riverway program allows the state to assess the effectiveness of our water quality protection efforts and make necessary adjustments before deciding to expand the initiative to other areas in the future,” Murr explained.

The Coke Stevenson Scenic Riverway was added to the tail-end of the water protection area pilot program, which began in 2005 with the John Graves Scenic Riverway. It will end in September 2027. 

Garland’s permit application is still under consideration by the TCEQ. To date, the Austin City Council, Llano County Commissioners Court, Llano City Council, Mason City Council, Central Texas Water Coalition, Save Lake LBJ, and Lake Buchanan Communities Alliance are among the entities that have voiced public opposition to the dam permit.