Red Drum

Art that depicts a red drum commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s.

EDNA – About 150 neighbors of a fish farm are protesting its request to drill groundwater wells because they think it could either tamper with, or worse, drain their most precious resource.

But Jim Ekstrom, the owner of Ekstrom Aquaculture in Jackson County, says he intends to use brackish, not fresh water, to raise red drum in ponds to sell at restaurants across the country.

“Our goals are exactly the same. We are trying to reduce our consumption and use of freshwater in favor of a resource that’s unending,” he said of brackish water.

Now, the Texana Groundwater Conservation District is calling in an administrative law judge from Austin to hear both sides.

During a meeting in Edna on Thursday, the district’s attorney, James P. Allison, said this will cost Ekstrom about $47,000 and the district an untold amount since it, too, will have to take depositions, file motions and possibly hire a second attorney to represent it.

The district operates within an estimated $220,000 budget, district general manager Candace Whittley said.

Specifically, Ekstrom is requesting to drill seven shallow groundwater wells and pump from them the amount he is allowed to from irrigation wells that were on his property when it used to be a rice field. Some of those wells are grandfathered. One, which was recently found, is not, so he is trying to get it grandfathered.

This would increase the volume of water Ekstrom is allowed to pump annually from 3,964 to 5,884 acre feet.

To fulfill Ekstrom’s request, the district would have to waive its rule that non-grandfathered groundwater wells and well fields cannot produce more than one-half acre foot of water per year per contiguous surface acre owned or controlled.

The well field will be on 894 acres of land.

Ekstrom said his request is safe because no one else wants nor needs this brackish water.

He said there’s also a 70- to 100-foot layer of clay separating the brackish water, recharged by Carancahua Bay, from the freshwater below. He said he would monitor the wells’ levels and salinity and curtail pumping if the district told him to.

His neighbors dispute him on all of these points.

“How do you know that the clay isn’t just 5 feet and the aquifer isn’t right beneath that? If you crack the clay, what happens to the aquifer? Will it get contaminated?” asked Sanjay Thompson, who lives in the Boca Chica subdivision.

Charles Marr, who needs the water to raise cattle on his land, said a third party should do the monitoring that Ekstrom described and Ekstrom should pay for it. He wonders why Ekstrom can’t keep using bay water to fill his fish ponds. Ekstrom said sometimes the bay water is not of good quality.

Although a study about the impact of Ekstrom’s request was inconclusive, Ekstrom’s neighbors don’t want to wait and see whether their worst fears are realized. They are hiring an attorney to represent their interests before the judge.

“Why should we assume this risk of losing our water supply?” Marr asked.

Thompson and Marr have seen rice fields near them become fish farms in recent years.

There are two fish farms within 10 miles of Ekstrom’s, according to data from The Texas Department of Agriculture.

Ekstrom said the area is ideal because it is flat, the soil has a lot of clay that can be used to build ponds and the mild winters allow farmers more time to raise the fish.

In addition to this farm, which is expanding to three times its size, Ekstrom has farms in Danevang in Wharton County and in Mississippi. He also raises hybrid striped bass.

“Ninety percent of the seafood this country consumes is imported so sources of fresh, high-quality seafood are limited, and there’s a demand,” Ekstrom said.

He first made this request of the district 2½ years ago.

Despite that, both sides are as committed as ever to convincing the judge they are right.

Jessica Priest reports on the environment and Calhoun County for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at jpriest@vicad.com or 361-580-6521.

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Environment/Investigations Reporter

Jessica Priest has done a little bit of everything since moving to Victoria in 2012. She was a regular fixture in the Crossroads’ historic courthouses, but now slathers on the sunscreen to report on the environment.

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