Ron Pucek's Living Waters Catfish Farm
Mr. Pucek and his supporters spent over $1 million to drill the world's largest water well and build raceways for this aquiculture project. There is tremendous artesian pressure at this location. When this well came in, it blew out rocks the size of basketballs 20 feet into the air. The well is massive . . . 30" in diameter and capable of producing 40 thousand gallons per minute! Water comes out of the ground at 89 degrees, and by the time it flowed through a canal and into the raceways, it was the optimum temperature for raising fish - about 86 degrees. Since the volume of water passing through the raceways is so huge, there was little concern for disease among the fish and the quality of water discharged to the Medina River was close to what it was when it came out of the ground. However, because small amounts of fish pee and other impurities were present, the water could no longer be considered potable. A flow of this magnitude may benefit the downstream environment and the bays and estuaries of the Gulf Coast, but it also means a large amount of water is no longer available for direct human consumption.
Was this use of water a waste? Mr. Pucek produced a healthy food crop that could have been worth up to $25 million per year. Many argued, however, that no one should be able to use that much water. On the other hand, the law was on Mr. Pucek's side. And his use of the water was almost completely non-consumptive. All the water he used was available for nonpotable re-use by others. Also, some pointed out that his use of water to grow a food crop seemed much less "wasteful" than using it to keep lawns green in the summertime.
The catfish farm was in full-swing operation for only one season in 1991 before it was forced to shut down because it lacked a permit to discharge wastewater into the Medina River. There were many legal wranglings over whether and what type of permits were required. In February of 1996, the farm reopened using only 2% of the previous flow to grow a small crop of catfish and some ornamental Japanese koi. A holding pond was built, and the idea was that all the water used would be retained on the property. Mr. Pucek did not need any discharge permits if the water did not leave his land. However, the Edwards Underground Water District asserted the design of his holding pond was faulty and that water was still being discharged to the Medina River illegally. Facing tremendous legal costs, Mr. Pucek agreed to truck his fish elsewhere and once again shut down the farm.
In the eyes of water officials, Mr. Pucek was a heinous waster of a precious resource. In the eyes of many farmers, he was not much different from them and was being singled out for criticism. The whole situation pointed up the need for a set of ground rules and standards that everybody in the region can follow and can be expected to live by.
When users were asked to file pumping permit applications with the EAA, Pucek claimed a maximum historical use of 46,483 acre-feet. In 2000 the EAA proposed a permit for 17,724 acre-feet.
On December 5, 2000 the San Antonio Water System board of trustees agreed to buy Ronnie Pucek’s catfish farm and most of his water rights for $9 million. The sale included 10,000 acre-feet of additional pumping rights for the city, Pucek’s 85 acre farm, the right to lease Pucek’s remaining 7,724 acre-feet for $25 an acre-foot for five years, and the right to match after that any offer Pucek might receive to buy or lease the rights. The sale brought an end to almost a decade of contentious squabbles and closed out the possibility of future litigation. SAWS board chairman Juan Patlan said “Pucek and his financial partners were very smart, very shrewd. They were watching what was going on, and they gambled that eventually they were going to have the right to a lot of water, and they were right.”
In August 2002 the Edwards Aquifer Authority cleared the way for SAWS to make an outright purchase of Mr. Pucek's water rights by finalizing a permit to pump 22,500 acre-feet per year. The final value of 22,500 represented a compromise that would keep both sides from having to endure years of litigation.
In December of 2003, SAWS purchased the remaining tangible assets of Living Waters Artesian Springs, Ltd, including the well, and an additional 3,125 acre-feet in water rights. The sale left Pucek's partnership with 9,375 acre-feet in water rights. Overall, SAWS has paid Pucek more than $30 million for water sales, leases, land, and equipment.
In March of 2011, Bexar county agreed to purchase the property from SAWS for a flood control to alleviate flooding in the city of Von Ormy.
The photographs below were taken during the short period in 1991 when the farm was in full-swing operation.
A few photographs taken in 2007, some 16 years after the fish farm's heyday.