The fate of a groundwater permit application seeking to pump 8.15 billion gallons of groundwater per year from a ranch in Bastrop County is in the hands of an administrative judge after the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District voted — in front of 200-person crowd — to forward the contentious application to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

For three hours, the 10-member board heard from more than 40 residents who criticized the Lower Colorado River Authority — the agency seeking to pump 8.15 billion gallons of water by 2026 to sell to customers within its service area — for what many saw as an acquisitive water grab.

But before residents began criticizing the river authority, LCRA’s Executive Vice President of Water John Hofmann addressed the characterizations that have dogged the agency since it submitted its application to drill eight water wells in February.

“I think I even heard someone refer to us as ‘water pirates.’ That’s absurd. What we are is a water supplier for our region,” Hofmann said. “And as a water supplier, we pay attention to two particular things — the need for water and the supply. … We see people, businesses and industries moving here every day, and they’re not bringing water with them.”

Hofmann anticipated many people’s concern that the agency’s pumping of the Simsboro Aquifer would affect shallower water formations — those often used for domestic and ranching purposes. He explained that LCRA's scientific analysis found “thick layers of clay” that would restrict shallower water formations from flowing downward as the Simsboro Aquifer was drawn down. He assured the board that LCRA's request of 25,000 acre-feet per year would not harm the aquifer.

Residents remained skeptical of Hofmann's claims. Kermit Heaton, who owns 175 acres near Paige, has a well 400 feet deep that he, his cattle and grasses depend on. The notion of that well going dry, he said, was of grave concern to him.

“I do not believe the intent of the Texas Water Rights law is to allow some big quasi-government corporation to pump water out of the ground and ship it off somewhere else,” he said. “The purpose of that water is for the people that are on that land so they can live, so their plants can live, so their livestock can live. … I look at this as a seizure of my property without compensation.”

Cathy White owns White Rock Ranch Beefmasters in the area, and fears for her single water well that her household and business relies on.

“They’re doing it for profit — it’s nothing but sheer greed. And what I have is need,” White said. “So it’s my need versus their greed. And I highly object to it.”

Like many residents who spoke Wednesday night, Jeannie Jessup lives in the Circle D subdivision that borders the southeastern edge of the Griffith League Scout Ranch, the 4,850-acre property the LCRA purchased groundwater rights from in 2015. Jessup has spearheaded opposition under her organization, Friends of Bastrop Water, one of a handful of local environmental groups strategizing against LCRA’s pumping permits.

Jessup’s concerns are more than just domestic wells running dry. With her house just a quarter mile from where LCRA's eight water wells are planned, she’s concerned about the noise they may generate, she’s concerned about how this may affect her and her neighbors’ property values, and she’s concerned about the route the prospective pipelines will take as they export water to customers elsewhere.

“Where’s that pipe going to go to pipe the water out? What about the eminent domain, are they going to use that? What kind of impacts on my neighbors or myself is that going to have?” Jessup asked.

In an interview following the meeting, Hofmann said some of the concerns brought up by residents will be considered by the agency while others, like the route of the pipeline, remain undecided.

“I think there have been some pretty outrageous things that were said during the course of the discussion, but we’ve also heard some very legitimate concerns about things such as neighborhood noise — that’s one that we’ve said we would be interested in looking at,” Hofmann said.

Numerous residents and organizations officially contested the case to the groundwater conservation district, including the city of Elgin, Aqua Water Supply, the Circle D Homeowners Association and — in order to help ensure that the case was forwarded to the state office — the LCRA itself. The groundwater board will determine which parties will have standing in the case before it goes before an administrative judge for an evidentiary hearing.

At the end of that hearing the judge will issue a decision on the case, but the groundwater board will have the final say over the permit. The process could take several months, said Greg Ellis, an attorney representing the groundwater district.

“We expected there to be a lot (of interest)—there has been a lot on every single permit that has been issued by this district,” Hofmann said. “It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people in the area, so the number of people and the amount of testimony we received tonight is to be expected.”