Buda well owner looks to become local water baron

By Moses Leos III

A Buda area well owner’s permit to pump 270 million gallons of water per year from the Edwards Aquifer for wholesale supply got the green light last Thursday. 

But with only six months to come up with a customer, well owner T.J. Higginbotham is now on the clock to meet his end of the bargain.  

By a unanimous 4-0 vote, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD) Board of Directors approved a Class C Conditional Use permit with provisions for T.J. Higginbotham, who plans to sell water pumped from a well on his property. 

John Dupnik, General Manager of the BSEACD, said the permit was “unique,” as it’s the first issued by the district to a potential wholesale water supplier. In addition, it’s the first permit issued with no specified contractual demand. 

Dupnik said what was accomplished by the permit is “compromise” between the district and Higginbotham. He said the permit doesn’t allow for production prior to the demonstration of demand. But it allows a permit holder to have a permit to take to a customer, proving they can produce water. 

“It was a compromise and a way to meet in the middle,” Dupnik said. “It provides them with what they needed, without compromising our non-speculative demand rules.” 

Under the district’s permitting rules, Class C, which is one the most aggressive, only allows permit holders to pump water in times of non-drought. The restrictions are triggered during the first stage of drought restrictions. 

Several additional provisions extend to Higginbotham’s permit, which includes payment of production fees, which are to be treated like a reservation fee, on an annual or biannual basis. 

Along with meeting the district’s rules on permitting, Higginbotham must provide to the district a contracted customer within a six-month period. He must also provide to the district documentation from the customer on alternative water supply sources, other than what they will receive from Higginbotham. 

But several concerns arose over Higginbotham’s permit, which he said he has been seeking for his well for more than 15 years. 

The city of Buda submitted comments that addressed concerns over the impact of the well’s production to the city’s water supply. A nearby farmer also held concerns over the well. 

According to BSEACD staff, long-term effects of the well are unlikely, and short term would be minimal. They based that on the original pump testing of the well, which was conducted during drought period. 

Staff said any potential drawdown would be “less likely” than was reported, as the well can only operate in non-drought conditions. 

Higginbotham said afterward that it was a “relief to finally get the permit.” He added several entities have talked with his group, which includes his lawyer, Andy Barrett, and David Malish, Vice President of the Murfee Engineering Company. 

Barrett said Higginbotham needed to have the permit prior to beginning contract talks with any entities. Potential clients could include the Creedmoor-Maha and GoForth Water Supply Companies, Aqua Texas, and possibly the city of Buda among others. 

“We didn’t want to talk prematurely until action was taken (on the permit),” Malish said. 

But other obstacles could come into play. Providing infrastructure from the well to any potential clients could prove a challenge. 

“We prefer our customer put a pipe into our well, instead of us putting a pipe in,” Barrett told the BSEACD board. 

But could Buda, which is facing a potential water shortage by 2017, make an offer to obtain water from Higginbotham? 

While Buda Mayor Todd Ruge said Higginbotham’s well is one of the city’s options, he said the city needs a “firm, non-interruptible water source” on an interim basis. 

Dupnik said the issuance of this unique permit won’t set a precedence, but would allow for the district to accommodate if similar situation arises. 

“It takes quite a substantial investment to be eligible for a permit like this,” Dupnik said. “Anyone who might want the same … would need to be invested in that well, but also need to be serious about the permit fees while seeking customers.” 

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