Somervell County Commissioners on Monday approved buying water from the Brazos River Authority to help irrigate the county's golf course.
They also signed off on an agreement with Luminant Generation Co., operator of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant, to deliver that water. The BRA water must pass through Squaw Creek Reservoir, which Luminant maintains for the plant, before it gets to the creek and to the golf course.
The court plants to purchase 350-acre feet of water from the BRA at a cost of $62.50 per acre foot, or $21,875. The county will pay Luminant $10 for its help in getting that water to the course. Luminant has a permit to divert water from Lake Granbury to the reservoir,
“The days of free water are long gone,” County Judge Mike Ford told commissioners Lloyd Wirt and Zach Cummings at the special session Monday morning. James Barnard and John Curtis were not present.
"In this day and time, water is gold," Ford added.
The county currently is in violation of its water use permit to appropriate state water because its permit expired in 2003. Until that permit is reissued, it lacks the authority to divert and use water it previously held to irrigate 160.74 acres at Squaw Valley Golf Course.
However, the county has been continuing to take water out of Squaw Creek. It is waiting to hear what kind of fine it may be assessed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ.
Ford said the decision was made to keep irrigating the golf course, a major tourist attraction and recreational amenity for residents and taxpayers, with water from a pumping station at the creek as needed.
"The citizens voted to have these golf courses and I can't let a multi-million dollar facility go to seed," Ford said.
The gold course also irrigates using effluent provided by the City of Glen Rose after it treats its wastewater. That water is stored in lakes on the course, but it's not enough, particularly in a drought. More storage is needed, Ford said, and there is room at the course for a 12-acre lakebed to store water.
"Our problem out there right now is we're taking everything we can except in the winter," Ford said. During winter the lakes fill, the golf course doesn't use the water and the rest of the effluent goes down the creek, he explained.
What about well water, Commissioner Wirt asked.
“We could have gone to a well, but I'm really not in favor of using groundwater for the golf course,” Ford said.
The water issue at the golf course became apparent in March when an investigator with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appeared at Squaw Valley Golf Course. In April the investigator notified the golf course that it had been without a water permit since 2003.
After the commissioners' meeting, County Attorney Ron Hankins said that in 2003 the county did not have a mechanized notification system in place to inform officials that the water permit was expiring.
“We were barely computerized back then,” he said.
Ford provided the Reporter with a "Water Permit Time Line" report that detailed what has happened so far this year with the golf course's water permit action.
In May the county received official notice of enforcement from TCEQ advising that “continued operation is not authorized.” The notice also stated that the commission encouraged the golf course “to immediately begin taking actions to address the outstanding alleged violation. In responding with prompt corrective action, the administrative penalty to be assessed may be limited.”
The county hired Lloyd Gosselink, an Austin law firm, to represent it. The firm has a Water Practice Group and represents clients in permitting actions, disputes and negotiations. At Monday's commissioners court meeting, the court approved transferring $47,500 from the golf course budget to cover attorney fees and fuel. On May 8 the county applied to TCEQ for a temporary water use permit and applied to the BRA for the 350 acre feet. It also requested a meeting with TCEQ enforcement.
Later that month Ford met with the TCEQ permit section officials and requested an emergency water permit from TCEQ and a “fast track” permit process.
“I informed all present that I, as the elected official entrusted with the best interests of the county, could not allow a multi-million dollar facility to go to seed,” Ford said.
Last month the county received a temporary water use permit for 10 acre-feet from TCEQ.
Ford also said immediate steps have been taken to conserve irrigation water. He said he informed Jeff Hansen, the golf course's maintenance chief, and golf pro Duff Cunningham to conserve as much as possible.
“But my order was to not let the course die, up to and including pumping water from Squaw Creek,” Ford wrote in the timeline document. “I also informed each commissioner, the county attorney and a variety of citizens of my intent. Everyone was told not to hide our actions or lie about our actions.
“Thankfully, this was a rainy month, so pumping from the creek was kept to a minimum,” Ford added.
The judge added that TCEQ is "reacting very strongly" to the record drought in 2011.
"There were first-line water rights holders far down the Brazos that did not get their water last year," Ford said. "TCEQ is very serious about making sure that doesn't happen again."
First-line water rights holders include major businesses such as Luminant.
Recreational use and irrigation are down on the list of priorities for water use. That's why it's critical that the county take steps to conserve water and find alternate sources, Ford said.