Bastrop County, Texas — Editor’s Note: Watch the full story Tuesday on KVUE News at 10 p.m

People living in rural areas of Bastrop County say some of their wells are drying up, pointing to a company that grows the grass. They contacted KVUE advocates for help. We have found that the problem goes much deeper than one company and can affect us all.

Change may be constant for most people, but for Diane Watson things changed very quickly when it came to her water supply.

“It’s very dry,” she said. “Sad thing.”

KVUE Defenders took to farms in Paige to meet people like Roy Hermes who are losing their water.

“The schedule is flowing much better now than it was two to three weeks ago,” Hermes said. “Everything feeds on spring.”

Hermes said his neighbor’s water use resulted in a low water level in his well and limited flow in the creek near his property.

“It was just a little,” he said, referring to the creek. “Yes, they were watering,” he said, referring to his neighbor.

Irrigation is typical in Bastrop County, especially for ranchers who pump water to grow hay for livestock. But Hermes’ neighbor grows grass like you see on golf courses, sports fields and residential landscapes.

“You can see the area they were irrigating where it’s green, right down to the weeds here,” Hermes said, pointing toward his neighbor’s property.

Thomas Turfgrass is the turf farming company that operates on the other side of the Hermes Fence. The problem with Hermes is not just how much water is used, but when it is used.

“I got a video here at 12 noon, 2:30,” Hermes said.

He’s not the only upset neighbor.

“In a drought, where will people get water to water the grass they buy from Thomas Turfgrass?” Wallace Dehardt asked.

Dehardt said the water on his land has diminished. It has three spring-fed ponds that are semi-dry. The pumpless artesian well that feeds its main pond has stopped flowing.

“This well is dry. This one over there is dry. I’ve got two more in the back — just dry … and it stinks,” Dehardt said.

For Dehardt, dehydration means he’ll need a pump to get the water out. He has a well equipped with a pump, but if the water drops too low, he will have nothing for his livestock unless he pays to lower the pump.

“My cows are thirsty,” Diehardt said.

Hermes and Dehardt live in part of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation Area, which covers both Bastrop County and Lee County.

KVUE Defenders mined conservation records, hydrology reports and the state’s well log. We have found that the problem is not just one neighbor or one company; It’s hundreds.

Records show approximately 3,500 wells in the area. More than half of these wells have been drilled since the last major drought in Texas in 2011. In addition, filings show “domestic” use of most of the wells, which are not monitored. The state exempts local wells from permitting. Only the region can determine the size of the pump.

“In terms of the regional impact, I don’t think he’ll be exempt from that driving that,” he said. Jim Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.

“Adding pumping will always increase pressure on the aquifer,” he continued.

In the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, any well pumping more than 25,000 gallons of water per day requires a permit. But Totten says each groundwater region is different.

KVUE advocates have found oversized pumps that draw water from Bastrop for use in other areas. A 2016 permit shows one company is permitted to pump millions of gallons per day to customers in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties.

“We are seeing some regional declines,” Totten said.

Projects in a nearby area have also affected people in Lost Pines GCD, Totten said.

So, the process of growing grass is not entirely responsible.

Water for grass

Seth Thomas, farm manager at Thomas Turfgrass, showed the KVUE Defenders how the company works. He said the grass he grows has benefits such as erosion and dust control.

“It has a cooling effect,” he said. “It traps carbon dioxide, so there are a lot of environmental benefits to the grass.”

We asked Thomas what he does for efficient water use, to make sure shared water stays in his field and reduces runoff.

“It’s sprinklers and a pattern that goes around them,” Thomas said, describing how his irrigation system works. “Then we place it as low to the ground as possible to reach the ground as quickly as possible and minimize any evaporation.”

Some sprinklers hang less than a foot off the ground. They sprinkle up to a quarter inch of rain across the entire field, Thomas said. The center pivot system takes 14 hours to fully cycle. If the season is hot and dry, like ours, his irrigation systems might run every day, he said. If the weather is cold or rainy, they may work every two weeks.

Grass plugs in arid regions may require water during the hottest part of the day.

“A newly planted area is thinner and more susceptible to drought,” Thomas said. “We’re just trying to keep that surface moist because that’s where you need it when you harvest.”

We watched as workers mowed the grass with machines that dug up the grass and about an inch of its roots. Workers then spread the fertilizer to help the grass roots grow new blades. It is aeration to help water go deeper into the newly bare soil. They will repeat this process once new growth begins. Watering does not stop.

“The key question for groundwater districts is how do you determine how much water a person has annually within their property?” Totten said.

The Lost Pines Preservation Council will need to know that for Thomas Turfgrass. Turfgrass company leaders have applied for a permit to expand its operations. The application shows a withdrawal of 3,950 acres per year.

“This equates to an irrigation duty of approximately 48.87 per year for 970 acres, and represents irrigation needs in drought years,” William Hutchison, Ph.D., PE, PG, wrote in an independent review of the application.

According to the Texas A&M Lawn Water Management Report, a requirement of 48.87 inches per year would fall within what is needed for growth.

“On an annual basis, warm-season grasses will use between 40 and 60 inches of water per year, depending on water availability. A well-watered bermudagrass corridor will use about 60 inches of water per year, or 1.6 million gallons per acre.” The same fairway is in equally good condition with about 40 inches of water, saving 33% in water alone. In addition, the energy required to pump water, equipment wear and fertilizer losses are also significantly reduced,” the report explains.

To reduce harm to neighbors, the district’s draft permit says it could cut that request by more than half and add three monitoring wells.

Totten did not comment on the pending permits.

“It’s very difficult for the district to say ‘no’ outright to a permit, because, you know, whoever applies, they have, in theory, the rights to the land and the water underground,” Totten said.

The Lost Pines District passed new permit rules in June, limiting oversized permits. The district is also working on a program to help people mitigate damage caused by nearby groundwater production. The board is scheduled to vote on Thomas Turfgrass’ permit on Wednesday.

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