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Sand is Shrinking Lake LBJ, But Will Sand Mining Hurt the Hill Country?

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What began in early 2017 as a proposed dredging project has turned into a sand mining firestorm for homeowners on Lake Lyndon B. Johnson. Residents of Sandy Harbor, one such community of homeowners, contacted Kevin Collier of Collier Materials – a company based in Marble Falls which deals in sand and rock for construction projects. Specifically, they were inquiring as to whether he could assist in removing the sand from their area of the lake, which was causing a problem for them. Some of them were unable to get their boats in the water, and they thought his company could assist.

Collier’s company had prior notable projects, such as dredging the Llano reservoirs (a job which was free of charge to the city). From that job, the company refined the sand which was dredged and sold it for use in construction projects. Throughout a number of years, Sandy Harbor residents had lost a majority of their access to the lake due to rising sand amounts – which had practically come to the point of reaching their docks. Unfortunately, Collier was unable to take the job. He stated that the community had no repository for the sand that would be removed, and if it were ever dredged, the sand would necessitate processing prior to being repurposed. That couldn’t feasibly be done unless Sandy Harbor were to have a close-by, small industrial facility. It possessed no such facility. However, the amount of sand to be removed in the process presented an intriguing possibility (since it currently markets for up to $10 per ton). So, he set out a dredging plan for the process, a plan which has raised a huge amount of controversy. Since then, sparks have been flying between local ranchers and the owners of lake houses, among other groups.

Sand is Shrinking Lake LBJ, But Will Sand Mining Hurt the Hill Country?

Photo: Facebook/Becca Smylie Manning

Collier investigated the opportunity to process the sand, which is generated from Sandy Creek and logjams in Lake LBJ. Before the 1950s, the sand would simply flow into the Colorado before being carried into the Gulf. However, the sand is now collected as a result of slower moving currents stemming from the development of Wirtz Dam in 1951 – the very project which created the lake in the first place. According to the Texas Water Development Board, the sand accumulates to the point of shrinking the lake steadily, year after year. Subsequently, at present, the Lower Colorado River Authority occasionally will release water from Wirtz Dam, which allows for the natural removal of sand from the creek. Collier decided he’d attempt to seek a method to obtain and market the sand. He sought a location upstream at which to capture the sand. He soon found ranch property owned by Steve Nash, who heads up Nash Builders, located in Horseshoe Bay. The plan would not only benefit Collier, but also Nash, who could use the sand for construction projects.

It appeared to be a win-win project. However, in order to get from planning to implementation, the men still have to acquire six permits from various local and state agencies. In the process, the Llano County Commissioners Court has passed a resolution in opposition of the plan, and a number of local residents formed the Save Sandy Creek group, protesting the proposal and the development they felt it would entail. Nash and Collier remain steadfast in the permitting process. They intend to construct the plant in a manner which is least obtrusive. Additionally, they feel that the frenzy of protest from project critics is unnecessary.  In reference to an area media story on the potential of the plant harming fish, Collier said this wasn’t a possibility, since all the plant’s water will undergo recycling and won’t be let out into the stream.

Sand is Shrinking Lake LBJ, But Will Sand Mining Hurt the Hill Country?

Photo: Facebook/SAVE SANDY CREEK

Leading the opposition to the plan are Fermín and Jennifer Ortiz, who own a ranch upstream from the proposed development property. Fermín explained that they’ve been contacted in the past by other companies about sand mining, however, they’ve chosen to decline all offers. The couple have a deep love for the land and have made several solid arguments to justify their position.

Should the plant be constructed and enter operation, the country roads will see a massive uptick in traffic. 40 semis will travel up and down the route. Also not to be dismissed out of hand is the noise factor. The plant is set to run seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Industrial lighting will come into play, however Nash assures everyone that the plant will be highly secluded within his property. The plant will also need to use water from the creek, a maximum of 30 gallons a minute. This water will then be recycled for further use. Jennifer Ortiz cautions that drought years have already forced them to truck in water and that the plant will only make matters worse.

Sand is Shrinking Lake LBJ, But Will Sand Mining Hurt the Hill Country?

Photo: Facebook/John Stewart

The opposition to the plant fears further development, coupled with an increasingly hot and dry climate, could negatively impact the natural, beloved characteristics of the Hill Country. Would the plant lead to more old Texas families selling out and moving away, fragmenting the land and thereby changing its unique look and character? Nash contends that the plant will bring further prosperity to the area without causing harm. The question, for now, is still up in the air as Collier and Nash continue the permit process. Whose side do you take in the great Sandy Creek debate?