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Sand Is Choking Lake LBJ, But a Battle Looms Over Its Removal

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue with the headline “A Gritty Debate.”

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.”

Jennifer and Fermín Ortiz.

Photograph by John Davidson

Fermín and Jennifer Ortiz own a ranch upstream from Nash’s property, living what appears to be an idyllic life. Fermín is the former chairman of the Llano County Republican Party; Jennifer is in the fifth generation of a ranching family that has owned the land since 1870. We talk on the wraparound porch of an 1872 ranch house, where Jennifer’s uncle was born and died. They live on a nearby hill, in a cabin that once belonged to author J. Frank Dobie, which they bought from the University of Texas and relocated to their land. On the other side of the ranch house is a four-hundred-year-old oak tree whose heavy and sagging limbs are carefully counterbalanced by a complicated system of supports.

The Ortiz family leads the opposition to the sand plant, something made trickier by the fact that Jennifer and Collier are related by marriage. “The Collier family used to play on this creek,” she says. “I grew up around Kevin.” The Ortizes make a number of practical arguments against the plant. But the most important one, Jennifer says, is not likely to be considered during any permitting process. “This land is sacred,” she says. “I think most people who have been here a while feel that way.”

“Everybody out here has been approached” by other business interests about the possibility of mining sand, Fermín says, but they’ve turned those offers down out of an emotional attachment to the land. “People want to argue about property rights, what a man can do with his property,” he says. “I’m a capitalist.” But, he says, alluding to a cardinal rule of hunting, “you don’t shoot towards a neighbor’s fence. There’s a point at which your neighbor’s safety, your neighbor’s livelihood should be in play.”

The impacts are numerous. There’s the truck traffic on a two-lane rural road. Collier has said he expects 40 semis a day, which means up to 80 trips total. (It would take more than 42 trucks a day to remove the volume of sand Collier anticipates.) Then there’s the plant’s noise, which opponents fear would shatter a quiet landscape. The plant is intended to operate from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, so it will need industrial lights for part of the year. (The original application requested that the plant run 24 hours a day, though Collier says he has since reconsidered.)

Nash contends that the plant would be set in the middle of his acreage and so secluded that it will be barely visible, if at all, to neighbors. (Based on a recent walk through the property, it seems that he is correct about this.)

The dry bed of Sandy Creek.

Photograph by John Davidson

Then there’s the question of water. Sand crushers like the one Nash and Collier plan to install are thirsty; they say that this plant will draw, at maximum, 30 gallons of water a minute from Sandy Creek. But the operation will need 216,000 gallons a month, which will be recycled. That’s too much for Nash’s neighbors, who rely on the creek’s water for ranch life and are sometimes forced to truck water in, especially during drought years. The climate in the area has changed significantly, Jennifer says: “It used to be cooler and wetter. It is different. And there’s no reason to expect that it won’t continue to be different.” They fear Nash’s operation will deplete the water table while providing no benefit to them.

“We quarry granite out of Marble Falls. The Capitol’s made out of that stone,” Nash says. “Marble Falls was a beautiful dome once, like Enchanted Rock. Now it’s been cut, cut, cut.”

The prospect of a sand plant is part of a greater issue that confronts the Hill Country, Jennifer says: whether these old ranches will survive at all as the area gets hotter, drier, and more saturated with development, as Austin and San Antonio pull more of the region into their orbits. Jennifer fears that the plant will help open the door to industry, that it will be the first of many projects to come to this area to make money.

Here on her land, her sleep is untroubled, she says, except for one recurring nightmare. In the dream, she wakes up, “and right across from my house are houses,” she says, a subdivision of the kind that has recently been creeping this way from Austin. “There’s a lot of families around here that have been here for generations and generations, and that’s a part of Texas I don’t think we want to see go away. I don’t think even the people in the cities want that to go away, because that’s what they like about Texas.”

That’s a real threat, says Cliff Kaplan, who runs the communities program for the Hill Country Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the region’s natural systems and rural character. “The aggregate industry appears to have ramped up its operations to meet demand in the Hill Country,” he says. Often these projects, like Collier’s plant, are in unincorporated areas, which means local residents have little say. “The counties have so little ability to do anything that landowners are left without officials who can go to bat for them.”

Compounding that, he says, is accelerating “land fragmentation” in the area. “The large parcels of land that have traditionally been owned by families passing it down from one generation to the next seem to be going away.” They’ve been subdivided into smaller plots that are bought and maintained for a variety of uses. That makes the environment “harder to steward.” There’s a risk, Kaplan says, that the Hill Country “will start to look like anyplace in America.”

Nash is less troubled by growth. In his view, the drive to make use of Sandy Creek is part of the natural order of things. This region, part of a geological oddity called the Llano Uplift, has been blessed with mineral riches, of which sand is just the least valuable, and people have always tried to turn them to productive use. “We quarry granite out of Marble Falls. The Capitol’s made out of that stone,” he says. “Marble Falls was a beautiful dome once, like Enchanted Rock. Now it’s been cut, cut, cut.”

The area’s development boom has been long in the making, he says, and it cannot rightly be halted. “I’ve lived here forty-four years, and this is what I’ve waited for,” he says. “A live oak tree is prettier than a sand screen, there’s no question about it. But I’ve always lived by this: the only constant is change.”

Tags: News, kevin collier, Lake Lyndon B. Johnson, Sandy Creek, Sandy Harbor

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