In early 2017, homeowners in Sandy Harbor, a waterfront community in the Highland Lakes chain where Lake Lyndon B. Johnson meets the mouth of Sandy Creek, called Kevin Collier about a problem: sand. There was so much of it that it was preventing some of them from getting their boats in the water. Could he help?
Collier co-owns Collier Materials, a Marble Falls–based company that collects and sells sand, soil, and rock, generally for construction. His most notable project at the time was dredging the reservoirs in nearby Llano, at no cost to the city. Using excavators, Collier Materials pulled sand from the reservoirs to expand their holding capacity, which the town badly needed. The company then refined the sand at a nearby plant and sold it for construction materials.
Over the years, Sandy Harbor had lost much of its lakeside access because of sand that had risen almost to the height of its docks. Now the homeowners wanted to know if Collier could dredge there as well. But he said no for two reasons: Sandy Harbor didn’t have a place to put the sand after he removed it, he said. And, once dredged, the sand needed to be processed in order to be used for anything. To do that economically, Sandy Harbor would need a small industrial facility nearby, which it did not have.
But the volume of this type of sand piqued Collier’s interest; it sells for about $8 to $10 a ton and could be worth a lot in sufficient quantity. So he hatched a plan to clear the waterway—and, in the process, set off a firestorm in Llano County, pitting ranch owners against lake house owners, growth advocates against preservationists, and the needs of industry against the old ways of landowning in rural Texas.
Sandy Creek rises in the northern part of Gillespie County, about a third of the way from Fredericksburg to Llano as the crow flies. It then runs north and east, through Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, constantly eroding the granite and other rock it encounters. Long ago that sand would empty into the Colorado River and be flushed out to the Gulf of Mexico and then to God knows where.
That is, until the Wirtz Dam was completed in 1951, creating Lake Granite Shoals, which was later renamed for our thirty-sixth president. After that, the sand began to accumulate in the 21-mile-long lake’s slow-moving water, shrinking the lake by about one hundred acre-feet a year, according to the Texas Water Development Board. (That’s one hundred acres at a depth of one foot.) As a result, some shallow areas of the lake, particularly those near the mouth of Sandy Creek, need regular dredging, which the Lower Colorado River Authority periodically enables by releasing water from Wirtz Dam, lowering the lake.
Collier wanted to find a way to capture and sell this sand—as much as 1,700 tons a day. To do that, he needed to find someplace upstream to build his operation.
Collier wanted to find a way to capture and sell this sand—as much as 1,700 tons a day. To do that, he needed to find someplace upstream to build his operation, a place with access to the creek, where the sand was flowing; access to state highway 71; and enough acreage to house a refining plant. “The only place that fit that description was Mr. Nash’s spot,” Collier says, referring to Steve Nash, the head of Nash Builders, a construction firm based in Horseshoe Bay, about five miles away. Nash, who moved to the region decades ago, owns land with creek access, a ranch that he and his wife had planned to retire to, before Steve was bitten by a rattlesnake and his wife decided she’d rather live in nearby Marble Falls.
Nash stood to benefit from the plan in two ways. His company builds homes and apartments, part of the area’s recent development boom, and sand is one raw material at the heart of that construction. “We’ve poured over one thousand yards of concrete in the last ten days,” Nash says. “I shudder to think what it would cost if that sand had to be trucked in any further than what it is now.”
By allowing Collier to build a plant on his land, Nash could make money on the sale of sand and cut down on the cost of concrete, which contains sand. The by-products of the mining, too, could go to development: The silt from the refining process, he says, might be used under parking lots. River rock would go to landscaping, and the sand would also make gunite, a cement mixture used to build swimming pools. On his ranch, the detritus of the Hill Country would be shaped into materials to be used in nearby homes and businesses, all the while generating revenue.
But to get there, Collier and Nash will have to secure six permits from five state and local agencies. And the Llano County Commissioners Court, which has no authority because it cannot control land use, bowed to popular sentiment by passing a resolution opposing the plan. Then there are the neighbors, some of whom have already banded together under the name Save Sandy Creek. Once word got out about Collier’s plans, the group made T-shirts and protested at the county commissioners court. They created a website and social media page, objecting to the traffic, noise, and light pollution that a plant would bring to a patchwork of old ranch land. And they’re protesting the demands such a facility would have on their water supply.
Collier and Nash are at the start of the permitting processes and say they hope to build a plant in the most unobtrusive way they can. But they claim that their opponents have been caught up in a kind of hysteria. Nash, for his part, sees the plant’s critics as embodying the same NIMBY-esque reaction he’s always had to stare down as a developer. “Most people are just swept up in the misinformation,” he says, referring to a report in a local news website, the Daily Trib, that indicated the plant would have a deleterious effect on surrounding fish habitats. (Collier says there will be no such effects because the plant will recycle the water it uses and will not release any water into the creek.) “But there’s just a select few who really are no-grow. They oppose anything that has to do with growth.”
Collier says that he and Nash are performing a public service: helping to prevent the buildup of sand in the lake while meeting economic needs in the county. But that is not a popular position. “I just had an employee the other day tell me, ‘Kevin, I’m thinking about taking Collier Materials off of our work shirts. We can’t go into a store. People keep giving us a hard time,’ ” Collier says. “My guys driving their company vehicles, cars just pull up beside them and shoot the finger at them.”