EDNA – Two cattle ranchers volunteered to represent more than 15 Jackson County residents on Tuesday during a pre-conference hearing for a contested case involving Ekstrom Aquaculture’s red drum fish farm along Carancahua Bay.
The farm is asking the Texana Groundwater Conservation District to waive multiple spacing rules and application requirements, in addition to requesting that a non-grandfathered well to be grandfathered and approval to drill six additional shallow water wells as the first part of its two-phase expansion plan.
Those request would allow the fish farm to increase its pumping volume by 48.4% and create a well field, which nearby residents fear could contaminate or drain their water source.
Legal counsel for the district James Allison of Austin and its manager Tim Andruss, as well as fish farm owners Jim and Vicki Ekstrom and their legal counsel, met with Judge Ross Henderson at the Jackson County Courthouse for the preconference.
Henderson is a judge with the state Office of Administrative Hearings in Austin.
Both the district and fish farm owners were automatically determined to be parties in the case by the judge, but about 20 residents who attended had to prove they had justifiable interest and would be affected by the farm’s request.
Ekstrom and the district’s attorneys spoke with the residents and called them up to label their property on a map in relation to the fish farm, as well as provide information regarding any wells they have.
Party status can be granted for “all persons who have a personal justiciable interest related to a legal right, duty, privilege, power, or economic interest that is within a district’s regulatory authority and affected by a permit or permit,” according to the Texas Water Code.
Attorneys agreed 15 of the residents should be admitted as parties, including three of four that Paulina Williams, one of Ekstrom’s attorneys of Austin, disputed.
Williams repeatedly argued that landowners’ distance from the farm, in one case about three miles and in another case about six or seven miles, did not distinguish them as affected persons from the general public.
But Allison told the judge that using a property’s distance from the farm, in these interests, is problematic because there is not clear evidence of the radius of potential impact.
“This aquifer has never been extensively modeled, so one of the concerns that will be one of the issues is how localized will be the affect,” he said. “I cannot present to you today where the safe zone is.”
The judge decided to “rely on the district’s expertise on these matters,” and only one of those requesting was not granted party status.
After the parties were determined, the group chose Charles Marr and David Frankson, both cattle ranchers who live near the farm, to represent all protesting parties named. Gary Brady, also a nearby cattle rancher, volunteered to be an alternate representative.
“I’m adjacent to the fish farm and I feel like I could be one of the first ones affected by it if there is an adverse effect, and I feel a need to represent myself as well as my neighbors,” said Frankson, who has raised cattle on his land for about half a century.
Brady said their main concern was the potential for contamination of water and the shear volume Ekstrom is requesting. He is particularly troubled by the lack of information known about possible impacts, he said.
The case will proceed similarly to a civil lawsuit and conclude with a proposal for a decision issued by the judge that the district can decide to change, vacate or modify.
A schedule for the case was discussed and submitted to the judge, but the water district and Ekstrom are hoping to reach a settlement with the protesting residents to avoid heavy costs and lengthy time involved.
The two parties had multiple conversations about possible settlement options prior to Tuesday, and discussed a settlement proposal with the three protesting representatives directly after the preconference.
Ekstrom hopes to hear the ranchers’ thoughts on the proposal next week, he said.
The water district is also looking for a mutual agreement.
“Hopefully we can be able to move this thing forward in the near future and at least find out if there is a settlement level that everyone can feel comfortable with or if we need to proceed on the hearing process,” Allison said.