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Illegal dam on Llano River tributary to be demolished

A slide from Bill Neusch’s stream restoration plan shows an aerial view of his unpermitted dam on the James River. It will be entirely removed by the time the restoration is completed. Image courtesy of Westward

After months of planning and negotiations, an illegal private dam across the James River in Mason County will be demolished per a stream restoration plan submitted by property owner Bill Neusch to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

The TPWD discovered that Neusch had built an unpermitted dam across the James River on his Mason County ranch in September 2023 and ordered him to remove it in October. Neusch and the department went back and forth over how to handle the removal until late March, when the property owner’s proposed restoration plan was approved. 

“Construction (and removal of the dam) is estimated to start before the end of March 2024 and is estimated to take approximately two weeks; however, the construction schedule is subject to change based on weather conditions or other factors,” reads Neusch’s proposal, which was prepared by the Boerne-based environmental engineering firm Westward.

The James River is a tributary of the Llano River, which supplies the city of Llano with drinking water and substantially contributes to Lake LBJ and beyond.

The dam drew considerable public backlash during harsh drought conditions in 2023, not only because it captured water destined for downstream but because it was constructed illegally.

“(Neusch) just went ahead and built his dam without bothering to go through the approval process,” Mason County resident Scott Zesch told DailyTrib.com. “I see (the dam removal) as a great triumph. I think the biggest concern of the people I’ve been in contact with is the precedent it would set (to allow an illegal private dam to exist).”

Zesch began emailing updates on unpermitted private dams to his neighbors in 2006 when another Mason County landowner tried putting up two. He has since built up a formidable email list that includes local media outlets and dozens of residents spanning multiple Central Texas counties.

“I’ve called myself the accidental conservationist,” he said. “I never intended to get involved in these issues, but I had a good email list.”

Neusch’s restoration plan consists of removing about 310 feet of roadway from the bed of the James River. The dam doubled as a river crossing. The plan will allow for semi-permanent ramps so vehicles can cross the river during low-water conditions, but otherwise, the bed will be returned as close to a natural state as possible and allow for unimpeded flow of the James River.

Private dams became a flashpoint for community activism throughout the summer of 2023, ignited by a proposed structure that would have spanned the South Llano River in Edwards County. Landowner Gregory Garland withdrew his permit application for a dam with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality after immense public outcry.

An estimated 12,500 unregistered private dams and ponds impound about 35,000 acre-feet of water in the Upper Colorado Basin, according to a study from Texas Water Development Board hydrologist Jordan Furnans. That acreage is equivalent to nearly four times the size of Lake Marble Falls.

“The (study’s) results suggest that the impact of small ponds and land use/land cover changes accounts for some (if not all) of the differences between streamflows observed in the 1947‐1957 and 2008‐2016 drought periods,” reads the conclusion of Furnan’s study.

The Colorado River and its northern tributaries provide the majority of water to Lake Buchanan and the lower Highland Lakes chain, which ultimately supply the Austin-metro area with most of its water.

dakota@thepicayune.com