Shared from the 1/11/2022 San Antonio Express eEdition

Dredging zones on two scenic lakes are selected

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William Luther / Staff file photo

The Lower Colorado River Authority for the first time will allow large-scale dredging on Lake LBJ, shown here, and other Highland Lakes. The agency recently designated four dredging zones.

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The Lower Colorado River Authority has limited large-scale dredging on the Highland Lakes to four zones where industrial operators may remove, process, stockpile and resell sediment from the lake bottoms.

Three are on Lake LBJ. A fourth is on Lake Buchanan.

But the geographical limits have done little to alleviate concerns among Hill Country residents — even those whose homes aren’t directly adjacent to the locations.

Phil Wilson, general manager of the LCRA, selected the zones last month after the river authority’s board opted to open all six lakes in the sprawling region — LBJ, Buchanan, Inks, Marble Falls, Travis and Austin — to commercial dredging.

The industrial activity is now allowed for the first time since the treasured waterways were formed by dams nearly a century ago.

Last month, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the board’s vote in favor of commercial dredging was tipped by Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent appointee: Matt Arthur, general manager of a mining company that already dredges on the lower Colorado River basin about 100 miles southeast of the lakes.

The commercial dredging uses noisy machinery that can stir up pollutants and pose hazards to those nearby and would require unsightly plants to process the sediment onshore. Its proponents counter that large-scale dredging can help control flooding and restore navigability in areas clogged with sand.

The LCRA has posted maps online that show the four sections where commercial dredging may occur in the water — at least for now. The LCRA’s general manager may “revise or terminate such designations from time to time,” according to the river authority’s new ordinance.

Wilson was not available for an interview, an LCRA spokeswoman said. He selected the zones “based on the need to address navigation, critical infrastructure, public safety and water supply,” she said in an email.

On Lake LBJ, the dredging zones include sections lined with homes.

In the past, the LCRA has issued permits for small-scale dredging on the Highland Lakes for projects such as retaining walls, boat docks and marinas. The river authority’s new ordinance was triggered by a request last year for something unprecedented: a large-scale, commercial dredging operation on one of the lakes.

At that stage, Collier Materials already had leased waterfront ranch land and invested about $8 million in equipment for a plant. The Marble Falls-based company was planning to mine about 4,000 tons of sand a day from Lake LBJ for use in mortar, concrete and golf courses.

Before Wilson picked the dredging zones last month, residents of the Comanche Rancherias subdivision in Kingsland, an unincorporated community in Llano County, anticipated that the plant would be built adjacent to their homes.

From his backyard, Taylor Delz was expecting a close-up view of a system of conveyor belts carrying sediment from the lake to be processed.

As it turned out, none of the four dredging zones selected by Wilson is adjacent to Delz’s subdivision. But that might not matter.

“Zone D” is upriver from the subdivision. Collier Materials still could mine sand in the approved zone and transport it elsewhere for processing, an LCRA spokeswoman confirmed.

“They can’t dredge directly in front of us, but that same ranch they’re planning on putting that sand plant on, it’s a large tract,” Delz said. “They just can’t dredge there, but they can barge sand back and forth.”

Kevin Collier, vice president of Collier Materials, declined comment.

Before targeting the Llano arm of the lake, Collier tried years ago to open a commercial dredging operation near Sandy Harbor, a waterfront community at the convergence of Lake LBJ and Sandy Creek.

Concerned about the environmental effect of large-scale dredging, some of the residents of Sandy Harbor banded together in 2018 to form a group called Save Sandy Creek.

Ultimately, Collier’s plans to mine Sandy Creek were stymied by the permitting process. Now, he might have another opening: The LCRA’s “Zone B” encompasses the same area he sought to mine in 2018.

Fermín Ortiz, who owns a nearby ranch, led the opposition to mining Sandy Creek.

In a recent interview, Ortiz acknowledged that the water there “does need to be dredged.” But that can occur without commercializing the activity, he said.

“I’m still adamantly opposed to having any kind of industrialization along any of our lakes,” Ortiz said. “I’m not at all against dredging. I’m totally opposed to the industrialization and having a sand plant on our properties.” bchasnoff@express-news.net

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