Shared from the 12/19/2021 San Antonio Express eEdition

Disturbing the waters

Plan to dredge lakes threatens a scenic Hill Country treasure

Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer

Homes in Kingsland sit next to property that Collier Materials could use for a plant to process sediment taken from Lake LBJ.


Rick Schmidt, left, and Taylor Delz look at plans for the plant on property behind Delz’s home in Kingsland.

Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer

A large sandy bank in Kingsland is part of Lake LBJ, one of the Highland Lakes in the Hill Country. They draw visitors and are an economic driver for the region.


Barbara and Rick Schmidt stand in a yard that backs up to land where Collier Materials is planning a dredging operation that would mine about 4,000 tons of sand a day from Lake LBJ.


Source: Lower Colorado River Authority Monte Bach / Staff artist

KINGSLAND — Created by dams nearly a century ago, the Highland Lakes in the Hill Country long have been a haven for vacationers and second-home dwellers seeking a scenic escape from city life and the noisy disruptions of traffic and industry.

Their serenity is about to be broken.

Last month, the board of the Lower Colorado River Authority opted to open all six lakes in the sprawling region — Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis and Austin — to commercial dredging.

The decision will allow industrial operators for the first time to suck, process, stockpile and resell sediment from the lake bottoms using noisy machinery that can stir up pollutants and pose hazards to those nearby. Its proponents counter that large-scale dredging can help control flooding and restore navigability in areas clogged with sand.

Although the LCRA’s 15-member board, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, usually reaches a consensus on decisions before a final vote, this one was contentious to the end. With one board director absent, the 8-6 vote Nov. 17 was tipped by Abbott’s newest appointee, Matt Arthur, general manager of Texas Aggregates, which dredges in the lower Colorado River basin about 100 miles southeast of the lakes.

Arthur is the only representative of the aggregate industry on the LCRA board. He voted in favor of dredging the Highland Lakes on his first day on the board.

Arthur did not return messages seeking comment. He was absent from an LCRA board meeting Tuesday, at which the board unanimously authorized LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson to select “dredging zones” on the lakes where commercial operators may apply for three-year renewable permits.

Wilson said he will choose the zones based on “where LCRA believes it’s important for sedimentation removal because it affects navigability, public safety, critical infrastructure, water quality, water quantity.”

The general manager may “revise or terminate such designations from time to time,” the new ordinance says. The LCRA will post online a map of the dredging zones before the ordinance takes effect Jan. 1.

A separate quarry operator, Collier Materials, is moving ahead with plans to mine about 4,000 tons of sand a day from Lake LBJ. It would be the first large dredging operation on the Highland Lakes, with a plant built next to a subdivision in Kingsland, an unincorporated community in Llano County where the Colorado and Llano rivers meet.

After vacuuming and processing sand and rocks from the lake, the company plans to send about 120 trucks a day down a narrow, open-range county road to haul the material out to Texas 71. The road is a school bus route.

Collier Materials will sell the sediment for use in mortar, concrete and golf courses.

With the population of Texas — and the need for construction materials — booming, the number of stone quarries registered with the state has risen sharply in the last seven years, from 639 in 2013 to 1,056 in 2020. In cities and the countryside, the sites churn out towering mounds of sand and stone piled across vast, man-made canyons that can grow to thousands of acres.

As the quarries multiply, the state has failed to stop repeated infractions of environmental rules that have spoiled waterways, threatened the Edwards Aquifer and sent plumes of dust into neighborhoods, a previous investigation by the San Antonio Express-News found.

Taylor Delz, a lifelong resident of Kingsland, has spent the past year fighting plans by Collier Materials to encroach on Lake LBJ. He and other activists scored a victory in February when the river authority temporarily barred commercial dredging on the lakes in order to study the issue more closely.

In the interim, the governor appointed Arthur to the LCRA board.

“I’d like to say I’m surprised, but I know that’s how politics works,” said Delz, a Realtor who owns a home next to the future sand plant.

From his backyard, Delz looks out across an expanse of pasture to the curving slopes of Packsaddle Mountain, whose highest summit rises 650 feet above the countryside. Soon, he will have a close-up view of a system of conveyor belts carrying sediment from the lake to be processed.

“I’m in real estate, and it’s good to see the progress Kingsland’s had,” Delz said. “But things like this … I mean, people come out here to enjoy the beauty of the area, the nature.”

Across the lake, million-dollar homes line the waterfront. Many of their owners are aghast at what’s coming.

Retired District Judge Phil Zeigler and his wife recently installed a pool that overlooks the placid water. Across the lake lies an unspoiled stretch of Hill Country that Collier Materials has leased to build the sand plant.

Kevin Collier, vice president of the company, said he has already invested about $8 million in equipment for the plant. The Zeiglers worry the sound of machinery will shatter the quiet, that security lights will drown the stars in the night sky.

“I don’t see how it could be anything but a huge eyesore and huge noise,” said Zeigler, 76. “It could be there in perpetuity.”

Turning the lights on

Before the Legislature created the LCRA in 1934, much of the Texas Hill Country was consigned to darkness.

Without electricity, rural residents lacked refrigeration. They hauled water from streams or wells, even as the Colorado River basin was besieged by floods and droughts.

The LCRA’s construction of six dams enabled the region to control flooding, store water and — at the urging of then-Congressman and future President Lyndon B. Johnson — use hydroelectricity to light up rural Central Texas for the first time. The resulting string of lakes, twisting from Lake Buchanan to Lake Austin, has become a major draw for visitors and an economic driver for the region.

The LCRA is now the second-largest electric company in the state, deriving most of its $1 billion in revenue from electric generation and transmission. It also supplies water to more than 1 million people throughout the lower Colorado River basin, a 600-mile region that stretches from the Hill Country to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Its stated mission is to “enhance the quality of life” of Texans “through water stewardship, energy and community service.”

In the western reaches of the basin, two rivers come together to form the Llano River, which flows east to Kingsland and Lake LBJ — often carrying a glut of sand with it.

In the past, the LCRA has issued permits for small-scale dredging on the Highland Lakes for projects such as retaining walls, shore stabilization, boat docks and marinas. Last year, the river authority received a request for something unprecedented: a large-scale, commercial dredging operation on one of the lakes.

When Kevin Collier applied for the permit in October 2020, he already had leased about 78 acres of ranch land alongside Lake LBJ and Moss Creek for the new plant.

Realizing that its rules addressed only smaller dredging projects, the LCRA board in February temporarily barred commercial dredging while the river authority reviewed the “potential water quality impacts” of such activity.

‘Zero dust’

Last year, Llano County Commissioner Peter Jones described the future sand plant at a public meeting.

“They have big pumps with pipes and they suck the sand out, and that sand would be deposited on the north shore of the ranch property and it would initially go through a water separation wheel,” Jones said. “The sand drops onto conveyor belts, and the conveyor belts would then take that sand to the south end of the property. And the water that comes from that … would then go into the first of three separation ponds.”

Jones told worried residents that Collier Materials would dredge about 2,500 feet upriver and downriver of the ranch.

In an interview, Kevin Collier said he planned to vacuum up sand even beyond that.

“I can also put a booster pump on it at that point and go another 2,500 feet,” he said. “Two booster pumps and you can go as far as you want. Or I can barge it. I’m immediately going to look at barging down or up (the lake).”

Collier spoke at his headquarters in Marble Falls, where Collier Materials runs a sand and gravel quarry. Collier’s 82-year-old father, Stan, owns the company. Collier, 59, has worked in his family’s mines since he was a boy.

In 2005, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fined Collier Materials $600 after finding that sediment-laden stormwater had flowed from the Marble Falls site into a creek. The quarry redirected stormwater back into the mine, the TCEQ said.

A few months later, Kevin Collier pleaded guilty to two more charges: possessing and distributing methamphetamine and possessing a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking, according to court records.

Collier spent about a decade in prison; he was released in 2014. Foes of the Kingsland sand plant have raised his criminal record as a credibility issue. Collier said the prison stint has nothing to do with his record as a quarry operator.

“It was a bad time in my life,” Collier said. “Straightened out and went back to work. Luckily, my dad had a good place for me to come home to.”

A year after Collier’s release, his company scored a10-year contract with the city of Llano to pull sand from the Llano River, where the city gets its drinking water. Llano pays Collier Materials nothing for the work; the company pays the city12 cents per ton of sand it hauls away.

“It’s allowed us to increase our acre footage of reserve water,” Llano City Manager Erica Berry said. “It’s not very attractive sometimes. When they dredge, they create this road in the river with their equipment. It’s more unsightly than it is environmentally a problem.”

Photos by William Luther / Staff photographer

A beach is the result of sand accumulating on waterfront property on Lake LBJ in Kingsland.

On a recent morning, an excavator lumbered over the Llano River on a road that Collier Materials had built across the water at a city park. A sign warned park-goers to “keep out” or risk “injury or death.” Nearby, the company’s processing plant loomed on a hill.

Steve Griffin, a pecan farmer whose home and orchard back up to Collier’s construction zone on the river, said he’s grateful for the dredging and digging despite the unsightliness and occasional dust. His pecan trees need the water.

“I was here in the drought of 2011,” Griffin said. “There was no water coming over that dam. Not a drop. You take the sand out, you should have twice as much water.”

Back at his quarry in Marble Falls, Collier said residents would be pleasantly surprised by the sand plant in Kingsland.

“We’ve got the most state-of-the-art system known on the planet,” he said. “They’re worried about the noise and the dust? You won’t be able to hear this plant. … There will be zero dust. None.”

Collier acknowledged that the road behind the plant should be “widened some … to be ideal,” but said he would run his trucks on it nonetheless. On a recent morning, livestock roamed across the road, which is only 20 feet wide and unpaved in places.

Citing the county road, Commissioner Jones said he opposes Collier’s plans.

“It’s not built at all for that type of traffic,” he said. “When you’ve got a for-profit operator getting a permit that would destroy a county road, and the taxpayers would have to pay for it, that’s not reasonable.”

Llano County Commissioner Mike Sandoval also opposes the plant. He cited hundreds of million-dollar homes near the planned operation. And he wasn’t comforted by Collier’s reassurances.

“These beautiful homes look right at that plant,” Sandoval said. “People say they have sand piles and they won’t blow. Give me a break.”

Quality of life

On Oct. 20, an LCRA manager alerted the river authority’s board about Abbott’s appointment of Arthur that day. The news reached Delz, the Realtor, who reached out to Susan Patten, a member of LCRA’s regional affairs team.

“I was wondering with Matthew Arthur being appointed as a new LCRA Board Member, will he be voting on the upcoming (dredge ordinance)?” Delz wrote in a Nov. 2 email. “Seems like there could be some conflict of interest.”

Patten reassured Delz: “Arthur will replace Director Lori A. Berger, who will continue serving until her successor has qualified, a process that I believe takes several months. It won’t happen before the November meeting.”

It did happen. Arthur’s first day on the board was the Nov.17 meeting.

During a discussion about the dredging ordinance, he asked a question.

“So what controls are in place, assuming that a second operator wants to come in and dredge in the same area or upriver, downriver?” Arthur asked. “What happens then?”

The river authority would consider the cumulative effect of multiple operations before issuing a permit, an LCRA staff member replied.


Collier Materials plans to use a ranch property in Kingsland for a plant to process sediment dredged from Lake LBJ.

By email, an LCRA spokeswoman said Arthur’s vote in favor of commercial dredging that day was not a conflict of interest because “he does not have a personal financial interest in this matter which is distinguishable from any other member of the public who may operate in this particular industry.”

In an interview, LCRA Board Director Stephen Cooper, vice chair of the board, said he was untroubled by Arthur’s vote.

“He seems to be a really nice guy,” Cooper said. “And I know that he’s in the business. He looked at it long and hard, and I don’t truly believe that it is (a conflict of interest). I think that he would’ve recused himself if that is the case.”

Cooper voted against the ordinance.

“Turbidity is a big problem and overall water quality,” he said. “Also, I have concerns about noise and impact on the folks around the lake. Our motto is to enhance the lives of all Texans.”

Turbidity, or the cloudiness of water because of suspended matter, is “very hard to control,” said Bill Dupre, a professor of geology and sedimentology at the University of Houston.

“And it’s going to affect not only the aesthetics of the area — it’s going to basically make an otherwise clear lake murky, at least in large areas. Some of the lakes are water supply lakes, so it’s a water quality issue.”

Lake LBJ supplies Kingsland with drinking water.

“One of the problems with dredging lakes is that lakes, and more specifically the fine grain sediment that settles out from suspension into the bottom of the lakes, often contains pollutants — heavy metals, PCPs,” Dupre said. “Dredging of places like that really requires a good pre-dredge study of sediment quality because you can release a lot of these heavy metals and contaminants that are in fact carcinogenic.

“Nobody likes to swim in muddy water,” he said, adding that if those contaminates are stirred up, “they could become a health hazard for swimmers.”

At the board meeting, Wilson, the general manager, reassured the board that the river authority had considered water quality in crafting its ordinance.

“Water quality is our focus at LCRA,” Wilson said. “I believe that this proposal does that in a way that has high standards and has measurements involved in that.”

The new ordinance contains a slew of rules, including requirements to screen samples of sediment for pollutants and to monitor and manage turbidity. An LCRA spokeswoman said the river authority would conduct both scheduled and unannounced inspections of commercial dredging operations and investigate complaints of violations.

Wilson stressed at the board meeting that operators must first obtain the permission of any landowner to dredge on private property, which can extend into the water. If landowners believe an operator has trespassed, they can sue.

“Why do we want to get in the middle of that?” interjected LCRA Board Director Tom Kelly, a rice farmer from Colorado County. “I mean, I appreciate the work that y’all have done. … But I haven’t figured out what benefit this is to us. To anybody.”

Kelly voted against the ordinance.

In an interview, Kelly said, “LCRA’s mission, bottom line, our goal is to enhance quality of life for Central Texans, and part of that is with water, by doing that with the water supply and with water. And I just don’t see where dredging benefits LCRA.”

‘Loads of sand’

In October 2018, heavy rains sent 200,000 cubic feet of water per second rushing down the Llano into the Colorado River, a near-record event that destroyed a bridge in Kingsland, caused the Highland Lakes to swell and flooded hundreds of homes.

Laura Patterson, who owns a waterfront home on Lake LBJ, was on vacation.

“While I was in the Grand Canyon rafting the Colorado River, little did I know that my living room furniture and belongings were rafting the Colorado River, too,” she said.

Before the flood, pockets of sand on the Llano arm of the lake had bedeviled boaters who struggled to navigate the water. The flood washed much of that troublesome sediment down the river, although it did not dissolve a sandbar that has long jutted out along the north shore of Lake LBJ and created a beach in Patterson’s back yard.

“I love my sand,” said Patterson, who sits on the beach most nights to watch the stars and enjoy the pastoral landscape. “I bought my house for the sand. This river is loads of sand. It’s coming from upstream, way upstream. It will never stop coming.”

The flow of sand and ever-shifting islands are just a part of living on a river, Patterson said. And her sandbar should be safe from Collier’s soon-to-whir vacuums on the far bank, she said.

It might not be. Collier said he’s likely coming for the sand across the lake.

“Planning on it,” he said. “If I can get out there in the wintertime, maybe, and work that far bank, and clean out a channel where the boats can get over there, then we will. It needs it. The thing is, something needs to be done with the sand.”

Patterson said some small-scale dredging on the lake is expected.

“But what’s happened is that along with the (commercial) dredging has to come a facility to handle the dredging,” she said, “so the partner to that will be an aggregate processing plant right here on the banks, on what is some of the last undeveloped portion of the river arm of Lake LBJ.”

And that could just be the beginning.

“If they let Collier in there,” she said, “how are they going to stop all the others from lining the Highland Lakes?”

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