In sprawl's shadow

BLANCO COUNTY — “It really frosts my cookies,” the spirited German grandmother says as she wheels the pickup toward a grove of milkweed. “They are doing things that are against nature – actually.”

Past the 1850-circa barn, through a field of summer flowers and a stand of mature juniper, Shirley Beck is navigating along ruts she discerns beneath the rich tapestry of grasses. Along the way, she describes how her family has set about converting their ranch into a managed wilderness. About how they hope to attract birders, nature photographers, and university researchers here to study the richness of the Hill Country.

They pulled off the cattle, installed viewing blinds, repaired water tanks, and paid for a procession of biological surveys. Endangered Golden-cheeked warblers that had made their nests here for two years running didn’t return this year.

Then there is the unmistakable snap of a nail gun.

From this small rise, the roof of a three-story condominium comes into view. A golf course takes shape. Snap! Snap! Snap!

Before us is the latest addition to Blanco County’s growing list of planned communities, the Rockin’ J Ranch. Billed as a luxury resort community, the 1,064-acre development is located a few miles south of Blanco on U.S. 281. Soon, almost 1,300 homes will be raising roofs against the back of Beck’s ranch, the ramifications of which are already being felt.

“We were afraid they were going to dry this spring up by all that pumping – 185 million gallons a year,” says Beck. “Instead what we’ve got is all the flow running off from their watering the golf course.”

The Kentucky Branch of the Little Blanco River is, at turns, little more than a wash – until rainfall. At that, flow it does, crossing recently planted golfing links before rushing under (or over) black plastic erosion fencing and onto Beck’s place.

It hits Blue Heron Pool briefly before dropping into White Springs, where walnut and White oak shelter the most fragile ecosystem on this family preserve. Biologists recently discovered a salamander subspecies so unique that it is considered to be, evolutionarily speaking, on the cusp of new-species status. (See “Eye of Newt,” this page.)

According to state biologists, this spring likely hasn’t gone dry for thousands of years. Of course, it never had a thirsty golf course for a neighbor, either.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Blanco County residents weren’t thinking of Beck’s salamanders or even the fickle warblers when they packed public meetings in Blanco in 2006. They were thinking of the sheer unprecedented scale of what was proposed.

At the 120-year-old stone Blanco County Courthouse on a slowly reviving town square, Texas Proud Real Estate, holed up in quiet side room, promotes the Rockin’ J, a project led by colorful Hill Country developer Lee Roper.

When asked about the area, the saleswoman compares Blanco to the growing bedroom community down the road. “We’ll never get as big as Boerne, because we don’t have the water, thank goodness,” she says.

One place there is water, apparently, is at Rockin’ J.

While most folks in these parts are used to hitting five-gallons-a-minute drippers, Roper’s team struck major producing wells straightaway.

“It was just purely coincidence, I think, that the developer, he was drilling the test wells to start the project, and the first one he drilled he hit 500 gallons a minute,” said Blanco County Commissioner Granberg. “Nobody knew that water was there.”

Plans for five-acre lots with septic tanks and individual water wells were quickly recrafted for 1,250 homes on half-acre lots linked to central water and sewer. An 18-hole golf course was added. Then came the condominium. Making it all possible are the 185 million gallons of water to be pulled each year from the Trinity Aquifer.

Most residents couldn’t believe such a gusher existed.

San Antonio resident Waxman Buchanan used to own what is now the Rockin’ J’s Hill Country perch. While he ran longhorn and a variety of exotics, Buchanan never could find a reliable line to the Trinity. “We had a lot of trouble with water on the ranch. The wells during drought would go dry,” he said.

State water planners’ distrust of area groundwater led them to “encourage” the city of Blanco to continue relying on surface water even after the Blanco River, the town’s chief water source, was struck dry in 2000 after years of drought. So the town ran a $3-million, 24-inch pipeline to Canyon Lake with the hopes of selling off some of that over-capacity to help pay down the bond one day, Blanco Mayor Jim Rodrigue said.

Unease that Rockin’ J’s sucking could start to affect wells at nearby Landon’s Crossing is a “real fear,” Rodrigue says. “I don’t know if it’s a reality. I don’t know that much of the groundwater part of this.”

Roper failed to return repeated phone calls requesting an interview for this story, but the panel of witnesses he assembled when the project’s water permit was threatened insisted the water plans are sustainable – and then some.

“I have concluded, based on my work, that the local Middle Trinity aquifer… can easily support the proposed subdivision pumpage,” R.W. Harden and Associates’ President Ridge Kaiser told the State Office of Administrative Hearings last year. “The local aquifer can easily support this proposed development as well as current and projected demands in the county.”

Any potential drawdown on neighboring wells would be “minimal,” he said.

Others aren’t so sure.

Neill Binford, an early opponent of Rockin’ J, was elected in May to the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District board while calling for increased public involvement in local water issues.

Binford, who recently retired from an administrative post at Rice University, sought the seat after realizing that by approving Roper’s application the water district gave away 37 percent of its total state groundwater allocation without so much as consulting its attorney.

He said not a lot of real research has been done on local groundwater supplies.

“We essentially approved a very large well in the middle of a drought. Not a lot of people were happy about that,” he said. “Anybody downstream in the aquifer could be affected by it.”

A group of residents formed the non-profit Preserve Our Water and sued the groundwater district for a rehearing on the permit in a case that continues to wind its way through District Court.

Beck contested Rockin’ J’s water and sewer application before the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality before reaching a settlement agreement one year ago.

In that settlement, Roper agreed to pay Beck $2,500 to dredge Blue Heron Pond, which had silted over during initial construction activity and, according to Beck, has not been able to sustain fish to feed the visiting waders for which it was named.

Roper also pledged to maintain a 40-foot no-development buffer with Beck’s property and limit pollution and storm-water runoff from future building and course maintenance.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Roper is not a new face in Hill Country development. Operating under Rancho del Lago or Rinco of Texas, Roper has launched numerous housing developments in Comal and Blanco counties. Typically, he’s done them on the cheap, by offering limited frills and creating his own water companies to serve them.

“Most places try to build a lot of amenities,” Roper is quoted on his company website speaking of Rancho del Lago at Canyon Lake. “Well, we don’t build a golf course or a lot of other things. The amenity here is the lake itself.”

When there is no lake view to sell, Roper sells relaxed country living. Other subdivisions along U.S. 281, like Cielo Springs on the edge of Blanco, which he bought when the original developer couldn’t find adequate groundwater supplies for it, and Stallion Estates, come with minimum home-sites of anywhere from two to five acres.

Roper sealed a contract for city water for Cielo homes after the purchase and Mayor Rodrigue now says he would consider annexing the development.

Roper’s strategy hasn’t always worked out as well as at Cielo Springs and the “legendary developer,” as a recent advertisement lauds him, has repeatedly come under scrutiny by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The water he was supplying his Stallion Estates residents in 2000 was found to exceed the TCEQ’s maximum contaminant level of total coliform, according to an Administrative Order issued by the TCEQ. He also failed to notify residents about the situation for at least three months. Five years later, the TCEQ found the same conditions that created the public health threat had not been fixed.

In 2005, the agency cited Roper again for failing to ensure that disinfectant reached the entire water system; not having a licensed water systems operator on staff; not completing a system inspection; and failing to maintain proper pressure and capacity in the lines.

“He’s a strange individual,” a five-year resident of Whitemire Estates said on condition of anonymity. “He tells you what you want to hear and then does what he wants.”

At Rancho Del Lago at Canyon Lake, Roper was cited for failing to maintain a minimum chlorine level throughout the water system. In this case, Roper decided it was best to sell the system, which he did to San Jose Water Corporation in 2006, boosting the California company’s revenue that year by $3.2 million.

In regulatory matters, Rockin’ J has not proven itself to be such an anomaly after all.

Roper was cited in 2005 for not creating an approved plan to control pollution run-off – or a Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System – intended to protect area waterways.

This May, TCEQ investigator Julie Pevehouse issued a Notice of Violation when she discovered silt fencing intended to control run-off was buried over with dirt and gravel. A trail of mud and rocks was seen running about 200 feet into Beck’s property toward Blue Heron Pool.

When Pevehouse returned a month later, she found that rather than clean up the mess, crews had left the fencing buried beneath the gravel and merely strung a separate plastic fence atop the heap.

Although TCEQ has approved Roper’s request to run a water system at Rockin’ J, his plans for a sewer plant are now being challenged by another neighbor, Ron Harris. This hasn’t stopped new residents from flushing.

While state regulators warned the developer that the wastewater collection system is not to be used until a permitted treatment plant is connected, the group has moved along without state approval. Wide highway-fronting banners proclaim optimistically, “Central Water and Sewer.”

Though most sales have been investment purchases only, some homes are being occupied, according to Commissioner Granberg. These are being serviced by a temporary pump-and-haul operation permitted by the county.

“In Blanco County, no home can be occupied unless it’s connected to an approved septic system – and that system is temporary but it is approved to be handled that way,” said Granberg.

How it is approved is a bit convoluted. While pump-and-haul operations are not permited by the county, Blanco County Inspector Kermit Roeder said county leaders wrote Roper a letter saying they “did not object” to it.

“All this septic work – as far as I understood it — was overseen by TCEQ,” Roeder said.

Though Roper’s actions fly in the face of TCEQ instruction, Carolyn Runyon, TCEQ’s water section manager for Region 11, said her agency cannot take any action against him. “There’s no statute that allows us to enforce that,” she said of pump-and-haul. “We definitely don’t encourage it.”

As TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson put it, regulation on pump-and-hauls “falls between the cracks.”

While Harris did not return calls, his lawyer, noted Austin attorney Stuart Henry, said Roper and partner J.R. Newman — as well as Runyon — are out of line.

“There isn’t any question that is illegal. They’re going on as if they haven’t been told,” Henry said. “They have admitted they are discharging waste in sewer lines that lead to an unauthorized holding tank.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

With ongoing conflicts on her own borders, Beck hasn’t had enough time to worry about the sewage plant.

“The only good thing I can say about it is it’s going downstream from me, but it’s gonna end up running into Ron Harris’s land. I wouldn’t doubt they find raw sewage in Little Blanco River.”

Though her parents bought the White Springs Ranch for about $40-an-acre almost 60 years ago, its per-acre value has climbed to six or seven grand today, she said. In the continuing effort to convert this 600 acres to a profitable nature preserve, Beck doesn’t regret moving the cattle off. The lease brought only $1,200 annually, anyway.

What does she expect to reap from nature tourism?

“It’d be something that’d be worth more than $1,200.”

With documentation showing that rare or endangered creatures are holing up in these heights, Beck can expect regular viewing and camera-blind leases selling at $300 a pop and a revolving door of outdoor enthusiasts paying $50-$100 for day access, she says. She hopes an application with Images in Conservation Fund will come through, bringing name recognition to White Springs Ranch.

The crux of Beck’s fight to maintain biodiversity rests with the water. The White Springs salamanders and Golden-checked warblers are the canaries in this developing coal mine, indicating by their presence or absence whether this remote ranch is remote enough still to grant the array of native species a home.

“I’m not sure it’s even alive anymore because of the pollution,” says Beck of the salamanders. “Who knows if any of them have survived?”

But viewed from a wide angle, there have been inspiring signs of late.

First, the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District last month approved spending $25,000 to research groundwater availability in the county, in a move suggesting the directors may be willing to ask more questions the next time a major groundwater permit rolls into view.

Second, 424th District Judge Dan Mills in June denied the groundwater district’s motion to dismiss Preserve Our Water’s lawsuit, allowing the case to move forward.

Lastly is Beck’s own intransigence.

Despite her settlement with Roper, she hasn’t let her guard down. She is constantly checking her fence lines and monitoring the quality of water washing down the Kentucky Branch. And she’s in regular dialogue with the TCEQ.

“We’re still testing our waters. I haven’t let Roper off the hook, by any means.”


Web Extra

Eye of Newt

Eye of Newt
Chad Norris

Which is more at risk: Texas springs or blind aquatic salamanders?

So what if the muddied biologists that have shimmied around in the mud at this historic spring don’t get a blind Eurycea named for them? Or that the semi-translucent, finger-sized resident hasn’t rewritten its genetic fingerprint enough to be considered one-of-a-kind?

One thing the curious specimen’s existence tells us is that these springs have been flowing here in Blanco County for a long time, likely thousands of years.

Shirley Beck’s husband collected Native American artifacts from this spot. Neighbors through the generations watered their herds here during dry years. And blind spring-dwellers went about their business eating and breeding – and evolving.

When Texas Parks & Wildlife aquatic biologist Chad Norris first came out to document White Springs and collect specimens it was the spring he was interested in. Texas Parks was finally working to document the state’s remaining springs after coming to the inevitable conclusion that Texas settlement over past decades had taken a toll on its celebrated waterworks.

Almost half of the state’s major springs have dried up and lesser-known springs like the one on Beck’s land were dropping out of sight before the state could even list them.

It was on one of these research trips Norris stumbled across a small, translucent salamander measuring only a couple inches head-to-toe.

Such aquatic and typically blind salamanders are fairly reliable denizens of these remote watering holes. Unlike more common salamanders, the dozen or so lonely Hill Country amphibs of Genus Eurycea don’t ever take to land, meaning that many don’t ever get the chance to socialize with the neighbors. And that can take them in interesting directions.

“Because these spring habitats are so isolated, a lot of the species speciate out,” Norris said. “Evolution takes them on their own path.”

The most recognizable of this sort are the officially threatened and endangered species – Euryceas like the Barton Springs Salamander, Blanco Salamander, and San Marcos Salamander. Then there is San Anto’s own Texas Blind Salamander (Genus Typhlomolge).

“They are very elusive little guys,” Norris says.

What sets the White Springs salamander apart from other non-threatened spring- and cave-dwelling cousins is how long it’s been off on its own.

While university researchers continue to work to identify the species boundaries that distinguish the variety of Hill Country amphibians, Driftwood biologist Andy Gluesenkamp says the White Springs specimen does not appear to be a new species. “However, this population appears to be significantly divergent genetically and its placement with respect to other populations is uncertain,” he says.

So is the future of this magical spring.

“Fresh springs like that are a vanishing species in the state. It’s a real concern,” Norris says.

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