PALACIOS – Cattle ranchers and residents surrounding Ekstrom Aquaculture’s red drum fish farm along the shoreline of Carancahua Bay are gearing up to fight groundwater drilling requests they fear could destroy their way of life.
“I feel threatened that my livelihood, my property and something we’ve done for generations is possibly going to be destroyed,” said Charles Marr, a cattle rancher who can see the fish farm from his front yard.
The Texana Groundwater Conservation District and Ekstrom are paying to bring in a judge from the State Office of Administrative Hearings for a contested case on the matter that will start with a preconference hearing on Nov. 5 at the Jackson County Courthouse.
Jim Ekstrom, owner of the El Campo-based company, said his request is safe and in line with the district’s goals because he intends to use brackish water and conserve freshwater at his facility, located at 1014 Jackson County Road 477.
“It is the stated goal of the district, the state and the federal government to conserve our freshwater resources and use brackish and saline water when possible, and so what we’re trying to do comports with that,” he said. “The brackish water is of no use to anyone else.”
But neighbors do use the shallow sand water in areas where that water is more fresh, Marr said. He is among more than 150 people who signed a petition protesting the fish farmer’s requests that were submitted to the district.
“It is not the brackish water, it is the shallow water sand. You can look out back and all them huge oak trees I got growing back there – I use that shallow water well, and if it was pumping salt water, the trees ain’t going to grow,” he said.
Not enough information is available to know how Ekstrom’s requests would affect the resources if granted, said Gary Brady, another cattle rancher who signed the petition. His wife’s family settled in the area 111 years ago.
“All I know is that we are being asked to join into a risk pool because he wants a waiver from the rules that I (and) my neighbors have to abide. Why shouldn’t he have to?” Brady said.
Neighbors like Brady also worry that if the rules are bent for Ekstrom, then they could be bent for future fish farmers and again, when Ekstrom completes the second phase of his expansion, for which he said he would need to request more shallow water sand wells.
“If he gets away with this, then he sets a precedent for the next fish farmer, and his is not the first and only,” he said.
Ekstrom is asking to drill seven shallow groundwater wells on his 894-acre fish farm. Some of those wells are grandfathered. One, which was recently found, is not, so he is trying to get it grandfathered. He is requesting to operate those wells in a well field and waive multiple district rules.
Those waiver requests include allowing the farm to produce more than one-half an acre-foot of water per contiguous surface acre owned or controlled and forgo certain well spacing requirements, production limitations and administrative and application requirements.
The requests would increase the volume of water Ekstrom can pump annually by 48.4% – from 3,964 to 5,884 acre-feet and allow the farm to produce up to 9,210 gallons per minute. That production rate would give the farm permission to use up to about 13.4 million gallons of water in a 24-hour period – more than the average daily use of Victoria, Port Lavaca, Palacios and Cuero combined.
Ekstrom said the facility would not pump constantly or at maximum production year-round and told the district he would monitor well levels and salinity and restrict pumping if the district told him to.
“A fish farm that doesn’t have water isn’t much of a fish farm, and we have a 40-year tenure in this industry,” Ekstrom said. “We rely on water resources, so it would be a pretty stupid fish farmer to try to develop a water source and then ruin it.”
Ekstrom expected the permits, necessary for Phase 1 of his farm’s two-phase expansion plans, to take a few months for approval when he made them in 2017, he said.
Since then, the farm has added 30 new ponds as the start of its expansion, Ekstrom said. The expansion will allow the farm to increase its annual production from about a million pounds of redfish to 4 million or 5 million pounds.
But in order to achieve that goal, the farm needs its requests to the district granted, he said. Once a pond is filled with bay water, the farm uses the brackish water to address evaporation and adjust salinity of the ponds while stocking them. Ekstrom said brackish water is preferred for the maintenance because it is sterile, unlike bay water.
Brackish water is also pumped into refuges created in corners of the ponds during severe cold fronts to keep the fish alive.
“Redfish die at 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and this refuge technology we developed is pretty simple, but it depends on ... the geothermal heat that you get from groundwater, and that is a lot of the basis for our request for the brackish water to save the fish in the winter,” said David Maus, the farm director.
Requests to waive district rules or make exceptions are not uncommon, though requests of this magnitude are unusual, said Tim Andruss, the Texana Groundwater Conservation District’s general manager. They relate to the district’s “most fundamental” rules, he said.
To support its case, Ekstrom paid for an assessment of the potential impacts of his requests that was completed by Venkatesh Uddameri, a professor and director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University.
That study found evidence of a connection between the aquifer and the bay, which Ekstrom said proves that the brackish water his farm uses is being replenished.
“But if that is the case, the saltier the bay is, the saltier that water sand will get,” Marr said. “If that happens over here where I am at, that means I will have to drill a new well and other people will have to drill new wells.”
Other findings in the study troubled Ekstrom’s neighbors.
There was not enough information available for Uddameri to draw conclusions about impacts on water quality, but he did find that the requested production would create “a significant cone of depression extending several miles in radius.”
If an intrusion occurred, more than a million acre-feet of brackish water would end up in that cone of depression, he concluded. The water would take years to flush out and require active intervention.
“Basically, it says this would potentially cause damage you can’t reverse for a long time, if ever,” Brady said.
Ekstrom said he does not agree with Uddameri’s conclusions because they did not reflect his farm’s pumping patterns.
“The modeling used different scenarios, different pumping rates, but they were all on a continuous basis, and that, of course, is not all reflective of our pattern of use,” he said. “Unless it is an industrial user that has a continuous process, there isn’t anyone that pumps on a continuous basis.”
The study assumes continuous pumping rates because Ekstrom’s pumping schedule was unclear, Uddameri said.
“Pumping is typically intermittent, but we didn’t know what the pumping schedule looked like because Ekstrom wasn’t sure when they would be pumping water,” he said. “One way to overcome that limitation and add some conservatism in the models is to assume that the pumping is continuous.
“There are a lot of things in the modeling that we don’t know, and we are running the model with very limited the data.”
The uncertainty is the problem, Brady said.
What to expect
During the preconference hearing, the judge will identify parties for the contested case, which will have all the formalities of regular court procedures, including the introduction of evidence, said Shane Linkous, general counsel for the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
Once parties have been established, 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, he said.
Ekstrom requested a mediator to attend the hearing, hoping that the involved parties can come to a mutual agreement.
“We don’t mind the people looking at this and being concerned because we share their concerns; we just hope that the science and evidence of our preexisting use helps to allay fears,” he said.
If the district decides not to grant Ekstrom’s request, he said his farm will not be able to complete its second phase of expansion.
“Not only would it impede and threaten our ability to go forward with Phase 2, it threatens what we have existing,” he said.
Brady said he does not know what to expect going forward; he just hopes the district sticks to its rules.
“It is going to be up to the water district to protect the aquifer,” he said. “That is their whole job, and that is what we are counting on them to do.”