How Many Straws Will It Take?
October 3, 2021
As a young teen in New Orleans, I participated in a social group that spent many times together socializing and exploring our fair city. We had limited allowance remaining at week’s end and one of our favorite treats was a nearby special root beer vendor. We liked their frozen mugs of root beer. Our problem was that we seldom had enough for individual orders, so we pooled our change and ordered one “super mug.” It came with “as many straws as you need.” We learned early on that beyond eight straws drawing root beer at the same time, it was a losing effort. When we tried to squeeze in others, it just didn’t work and all of us were left wanting.
That early life lesson keeps coming to mind as I ponder the circumstances of the pace of growth in our area and the demands on the aquifer that supports us for essential water. The frequency with which the meteorologists and newscasters call attention to how our Edwards Aquifer “drops” rapidly nags at my worry that we may discover how many “takes” are too many!
As one who lived where surface water from the “mighty” Mississippi River provided us with our water needs, the aquifer source for our waters here fascinated and thrilled me. Instead of a very involved process of “settling” debris from the river’s water, filtration and then “purification” before sending it forth into the community we have natural processes here capturing our water. However, instead of the remarkable flow of the river from my early years, I am mindful and concerned that more and more folks here are partaking of the waters beneath us. When you consider the multiplication of individual wells, larger community and subdivision installations and note the water towers and storage systems that are being added all about us here in Comal County, it’s cause to pause and begin some calculation.
The Edwards Aquifer in our area has the neighboring Trinity Aquifer, particularly in western Comal County. Both are “holey limestone” aquifers (karst aquifers) highly sensitive to both pollution and depletion. Then San Antonio reaches northeast to the mostly sand Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer with a 142-milelong straw called the Vista Ridge pipeline to supplement their future needs. With other water-suppliers in the area negotiating to pipe in additional water it now sounds like there may be more straws than the aquifers can support if all these supplementary measures are implemented.
It is time for oversight for the benefit of all when it comes to our water sources. The static notion that the water beneath each acre somehow is there just for the dwelling on that acre ignores reality and the dynamic regional nature of the flow and spread of aquifers and what they provide. Further, in a state where so many citizens benefit from subsurface waters, including the springs they put forth, it would seem time to take a long look and do an assessment of water sources, both surface and subsurface, viewing and regulating them as one.
That, friends, takes me back to the “supersize” mug which we youngsters decided could only provide satisfying root beer for a limited number of straws.
Whatever we call the wells and water systems growing up around us like wild mushrooms, we might want to think through our finite source of this essential resource!
Mark your calendar for 9 November at 6 p.m. when Dr. George Veni, world-famous karst hydrologist, aquifer pioneer and adventurer will be CCCA’s guest. Check for details at www.comalconservation.org.
Submitted in loving memory and appreciation of Jensie Madden, co-founder and friend of CCCA
The State of Texas Water Infrastructure
By Todd H. Votteler, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, Texas+Water & The Texas Water Journal
August 30, 2021
August 30, 2021
Earlier this month, during a special session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Capitol flooded. After the water stopped cascading down the pink granite walls inside the Capitol extension, the Legislature resumed its deliberations.
The August flood was preceded by February’s Winter Storm Uri. Between 200 and 700 Texans died in the cold and dark after days without power and, in some places, without water. According to the Electric Reliability Council to fix and a partial evacuation of the state. More than 15 million Texans
were told to boil water to make it safe to drink. Others had no water service at all, as the combined power outages and frigid temperatures knocked out normally safe, reliable water suppliers.
Now, six months later, a new survey of Texas water utilities shows that 79% of them are still concerned that the reliability of the Texas energy grid could affect their operations. Whether it is a week without running water in the dead of winter, or an August flash flood at the Capitol, Texas’ water infrastructure is struggling. Yet the aging water infrastructure also struggles to attract the attention of Texas’ leaders.
Water — what we depend on most for the basics of life — has been mostly overlooked for decades under leadership from both parties. The 87th Texas Legislature was no different, with water infrastructure receiving little attention. The Legislature’s reaction to Winter Storm Uri focused on the power side of the equation, rather than on both power and water. But with climate change powering droughts and floods across the state and an average of 800 people moving to Texas every day, the unrelenting strain on the state’s water infrastructure can no longer be ignored.
Almost as if timed for the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released their 2021 state and national infrastructure report cards, which are sober nonpartisan assessments of infrastructure conditions. Overall, America got a C- and Texas got a C. ASCE found that America would need $2.5 trillion in investments for every infrastructure category to make the honor roll. Texas’ grades on particular areas of water infrastructure were even lower:
Put lightly, this is not good. While those who provide Texans with water generally do their best with what they have, our infrastructure is the backbone of Texas’ economy, the 9th-largest in the world.
Even so, a partial solution to Texas’ failing grades could be on the horizon. After decades of neglect and lip service, Texas water infrastructure may finally be getting a much-needed infusion of funding from the federal government. The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (Infrastructure Act) is designed to address water infrastructure needs, among many others. While only $550 billion of the Infrastructure Act is new spending, compared to the $2.5 trillion need, it is a good start, according to Mark Boyd, chair of the Texas ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card Committee. The Infrastructure Act also encourages using nonstructural or green infrastructure solutions, such as restoring floodplains and wetlands.
Four questions remain. Is Texas ready to take advantage of the opportunities that could present themselves should Congress approve the Infrastructure Act? Can Texas meet the additional water needs as the population grows from 29.5 million to 51.5 million by 2070? Can Texas handle another event like Winter Storm Uri next year or the year after? And finally, is the state prepared for more drought — the bane of Texans’ existence — like the seven-year drought of record in the 1950s, let alone droughts supercharged by climate change?
Winter Storm Uri laid bare the fragility of the Texas power grid, and Texas’ aging water infrastructure is just as fragile. Adapting to the new ‘abnormal’ will require action. Texans need to decide whether to meet these challenges head-on, or just hope for the best.
The Edwards Aquifer is the lifeblood of for dozens of communities – and millions of people – in Central and South Central Texas. So too for over 60 species of plants and animals that live in the Edwards Aquifer Ecosystem and nowhere else on the planet.
Despite the immeasureable value of this natural resource, human activity – urbanization – now threatens to taint the water of the Edwards Aquifer with a slew of pollutants – from fertilizers and pesticides to toxic metals and sewage spills.
The Edwards Aquifer and its Great Springs are highly vulnerable because of their unique geology and hydrology. Caves, sinkholes, faults, and fractures dot the landscape of the Recharge Zone, where water plunges underground, where it encounters limestone rock that has been eroded over time to create large underground channels for the water to flow.
Water in the Edwards Aquifer moves at a rate of thousands of feet per day; compared to velocities of a few feet per year in other aquifers. This rapid movement and the relatively large size of the spring outlets provide none of the filtration, absorption, and slow water flow that protect many aquifers from contamination.
Development in the Recharge Zone and upstream of the Recharge Zone in the Contributing Zone of new subdivisions, shopping centers, office buildings, highways, golf courses, sewer lines, wastewater treatment plants, and rock quarries all create increased risk of contamination of the aquifer.
We are literally poisoning our drinking water when we allow development to take place that will undeniably increase loads of pollutants over the sensitive karst limestone aquifer.
Urban development creates numerous sources of water pollution. First, the construction phase transforms farm, ranch, forest, and pasture land into large areas of disturbed soil. Central Texas’ erratic weather patterns can dump 6-10 inches of rainfall in a short time span. Erosion and sedimentation controls at construction sites are often overwhelmed by heavy rains and the result is muddy run-off leaving the site and entering a creek and eventually the aquifer and springs.
Large scale construction activity leads to increased sediment loads that wash off of construction sites.
At right, silt fences are not capturing sediment-laden runoff at a highway construction site.
When construction is completed, the development transforms pervious land into impervious cover, which means any surface that water cannot pass such as roofs, parking lots, and roads. These surfaces prevent rainfall from being filtered through vegetation and thereby increasing the percentage of rainfall
that becomes storm water. Rainfall that hits pavement washes oil, grease, and other urban contaminants off their surfaces and into creeks, streams and recharge features. Increased impervious cover also leads to increased flooding and erosion of stream banks, which results in higher levels of sediments entering the aquifer and emerging at the Springs.
New developments typically are required to install “water quality controls” or “best management practices,” engineered structures designed to capture the “first flush” of stormwater runoff, which has a higher percentage of pollutants. The “first flush” is routed into a pond or filter that removes some pollutants. However, no structured control achieves 100% removal of pollutants. Click here to read a U.S. Geological Survey report on performance of structured controls. In some instances, the structured controls accumulate pollutants that are then washed out of the control by a very heavy rain event. The bottom line is that history has proven engineered controls cannot and do not prevent pollution of water in the Edwards Aquifer watershed.
Increased urbanization of the Edwards Aquifer has led to increased numbers of vehicles traveling over the aquifer. In turn, this has led to increased contaminants from automobiles, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (or PAHs), entering the aquifer. Most roadways over the aquifer do not have “water quality controls” to capture these contaminants that are continually emitted by vehicles.
Increased numbers of residential subdivisions over the aquifer has led to increases in fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and other house hold chemicals that wash off of lawns and end up in the aquifer and springs. Golf courses are also a leading source of these contaminants, as Hill Country soils are not capable of supporting golf turf without massive chemical applications to provide nutrients and fend off insects and fungi.
Increased and concentrated residential development also creates miles of sewer pipes, which can crack and leak without being detected, sometimes dumping raw sewage into fractures and fissures. Sewage lift stations can fail, and sewer manholes can overflow.
We advocate for prevention of pollution of the Edwards Aquifer by preventing the type of developments that threaten our water and endangered species. In fact, it would be cheaper to protect the Edwards Aquifer through conservation easements and parklands purchases than it would cost taxpayers to build the roads, schools, water and wastewater systems for development that threatens our water.
In sum, the Edwards Aquifer watershed is too vulnerable to accommodate the influx of new residents that business boosters and developers would like to see.
The Edwards Aquifer provides drinking water for over 1.7 million people. The Austin/San Antonio corridor is expected to grow continually, requiring more water if new growth is wasteful and not sustainable. Current pumping from the aquifer has resulted in diminished spring flows in San Antonio.
Water hustlers are trying to secure rights to pump tremendous amounts of water out of the western reaches of the Edwards Aquifer to pipe and sell to other parts of the state. Texas’ antiquated “Rule of Capture” allows people to pump as much water from underneath their property as they please, even if in doing so they cause their neighbors’ wells to go dry.
Groundwater districts have been established in most parts of Texas to regulate groundwater pumping from different aquifers. The Edwards Aquifer Authority regulates most of the Southern Segment of the Edwards Aquifer,
including San Marcos, New Braunfels, San Antonio, and Uvalde. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District regulates pumping in the Barton Springs segment.
Development interests regularly try to weaken pumping restrictions to protect spring flows for endangered species, as well as for the health of downstream rivers and coastal ecosystems – and economies.
How can this region continue to grow without pumping aquifers dry? Reducing consumption of water reduces perceived need to build new reservoirs or drill deeper wells. Rainwater harvesting can provide residential development with adequate – and tasty – water without surface or ground water. Improving efficiency of transmission lines and appliances can save millions of gallons of water each day.
The Edwards Aquifer, and other aquifer in Texas, are being blasted, chopped, and dug up. Often the limestone rock is crushed at the site of the quarry before being hauled off in large trucks, frequently to road construction sites.
The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance recommends that the Texas Legislature act immediately to:
By Gregg Eckhardt
I am always surprised at how little and how slowly this page has to be changed. When I started this website in 1995, the primary issue that had to be resolved was how much users could pump, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority had been handed the job of allocating water rights. This question was not fully resolved until 2007, when the Edwards pumping cap was revised upwards to 572,000 acre-feet. Even so, there is still uncertainty regarding minimum necessary spring flows and the pumping levels that would ensure them.
As the issue of pumping volume moved slowly toward resolution, a focus on Edwards water quality has emerged. It seems likely that ensuring water quality will take much longer to address than pumping did. After Senate Bill 1477 was passed in 1993, it seemed clear that after addressing pumping, the Edwards Aquifer Authority would eventually take on the role of developing regulations to protect Edwards water quality. But today, the issue is largely unresolved. There is disagreement whether this function should be the responsibility of the TCEQ or the EAA. In a State where private property rights are sacrosanct, regulators and lawmakers who would protect our natural resources find their hands tied at every turn. And the recent proliferation of groundwater conservation districts on the Edwards catchment area is bound to complicate matters by adding layers of competing jurisdiction. So the issue of regulating development and land use to protect Edwards water quality promises to be a source of controversy for decades.
In addition to an emerging focus on water quality, another of the main shifts in thinking about the Edwards has been toward viewing it as a living system instead of simply cold, wet limestone. For decades, aquifer science has failed to incorporate the living component, especially microbiology. This has led to misperceptions and a lack of appreciation for the value of the environmental services the Aquifer is providing. For example, officials and journalists often incorrectly state the Edwards does not filter water; in reality, the Edwards is a massive wastewater treatment plant that filters and purifies recharge water to a quality that is drinkable without further treatment. This occurs through physical and biological processes that are similar to those used in a conventional man-made plant, where the heart of the treatment system is a rich microbial community of organisms that transform and stabilize waste materials. Purification processes are occurring in the Edwards, but they have not been described or studied and we know very little about them. In the past, we viewed the Aquifer as simply a mechanistic flow system, and we looked to hydrogeologists for answers. In the future, we will view the Aquifer as a hard-working but fragile ecosystem, and we will tend to look more to biologists and chemists and water treatment experts for answers.
In general, the framework in which we address issues surrounding the Edwards Aquifer involves the facts that:
- all the issues are complex and emotional;
- the timelines required to solve the problems are very long;
- the investments required are huge;
- the future is uncertain.
Most of the time, decision makers who face an uncertain future tend to make the timeline as short as possible and the investment as small as possible. In other words, they look for a quick, cheap fix. But water issues are not solved using this approach - they require long term commitments and very large investments. Moreover, it seems unlikely that we can use a traditional structural approach to build ourselves steel-and-concrete solutions like surface water reservoirs and recharge projects. We will have to THINK ourselves out of this one.
In general, water management issues for the Edwards Aquifer can be broadly classified as technical, legal, economic, and institutional. However, few concerns fit neatly into one category. For example, reuse of water at first seems like a technical issue, but on closer inspection it is clear this is mainly an institutional and cultural issue revolving around overcoming negative attitudes toward using recycled water.
Since the Edwards has been one of the most studied aquifers in the world, most of the technical issues have already been tackled. Projects such as baseline predictions, quantification of Edwards resources, and mapping of the various zones have mostly already been performed and refined. But some things are still unclear, even after considerable study, and some of the unanswered questions are very basic.
To really get a grasp on the complicated legal issues involved, you need to check out the legislative history in the Laws and Regs section! Some of the major legal issues for the aquifer are:
Any technical, legal, or institutional changes we make will have profound economic impacts. Some of the economic questions and issues are:
Perhaps the most difficult and the most important issues to deal with are institutional ones. These include the institution of culture which is very hard to change. We also have to deal with the fact that currently there are hundreds of management institutions involved, many of which care about an area only as large as their borders. Some of the issues are:
Taxpayers Paid $1.5M To Protect Land Over the Aquifer. Will San Antonio Pipe Sewage Across It?
By Brendan Gibbons
May 13, 2021
May 13, 2021
As the sun rises over the rolling hills on the horizon, Brenda Chapman and her husband can stand on the wooden porch of their farmhouse and look downhill at the horses and cattle grazing on the green pasture owned by her neighbors, Scott and Maria Gruendler.
Their hill, covered in stout-chested oak trees recently marked with orange tape, has become a focus of interest from the San Antonio Water System. SAWS engineers want to use the slope of the Chapmans’ property to build a gravity-fed sewage pipeline flowing downhill from a proposed housing development.
The 15-inch-diameter pipeline would be encased in concrete and studded regularly with manholes poking up from the ground. It would carry between 84,000 and 100,800 gallons of raw sewage per day from 420 homes slated for the Specht Tract, a 173-acre property at the intersection of Blanco and Specht roads, more than a mile from the Chapmans’ porch. National homebuilder Meritage Homes is developing the property, which is located in SAWS’ water and sewer service territory.
But sewage pipelines aren’t supposed to cross the Chapman or Gruendler ranches, both of which include land over the Edwards Aquifer, a vast underground limestone layer that serves as the region’s primary drinking water supply. In fact, San Antonio taxpayers paid good money to stop construction like this from ever happening on the families’ land.
Last year, the Chapmans and Gruendlers signed conservation agreements with the City’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, a more than 20-year-old initiative meant to protect land over and upstream of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone.
The easements forever block construction on most of the Chapman and Gruendler properties. In return, the families each received around $750,000 from the City, paid for by local sales tax revenue.
Within months of signing the deal, the families started receiving letters from engineers representing SAWS. First, they wanted permission to build a water line across the protected land. Then came plans for a sewer line. By now, the route’s been mapped, down to the 134 trees marked to be cut down to make room for construction.
The Chapmans and Gruendlers haven’t agreed to the pipeline easement. If they don’t, SAWS could seek City Council permission take them to court to force the easement through. The families would receive compensation for their land at a value set by appraisers.
“A lot of our projects require us to go through private property, and we do our best to negotiate with the landowner to purchase the easement, the right to go through there,” SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said in a Tuesday phone interview. “If there’s an inability, a lack of agreement to buy that easement, then we ask our board and City Council for the power of eminent domain.”
But will the City of San Antonio really allow SAWS to build a sewage pipeline on land it spent $1.5 million in taxpayer funds to protect?
“Are they going to stick with their commitment that they made to us on the conservation easement, or are they going with their SAWS development arm and going to approve SAWS coming through?” Chapman said.
‘A great way to protect it’Chapman grew up in New Braunfels, where she and her husband still have their primary residence. She knew development would eventually come to the area near the 98-acre land her husband bought in the 1990s.
The Chapmans and Gruendlers’ land is part of the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone, where the porous limestone lies at the ground’s surface. That means any spills on the surface can quickly infiltrate the groundwater.
“Our [conservation easement] was primarily to protect what we were working to leave as a legacy for our children,” Chapman said. “The fact that it assisted with recharge and helped other folks was kind of an added benefit.”
When the Gruendlers moved onto the 87-acre property next door, the Chapmans helped persuade them to enroll in the EAPP. In an area where encroaching sprawl is a threat, sometimes good conservation easements make good neighbors.
“They are our view,” Chapman said of her neighbors’ land. “By one of us doing it, we are protecting the other, and vice versa.”
Brenda Chapman, center, and neighbor Scott Gruendler, right, raise the possibility that SAWS’ wastewater pipelines will be routed through their nearly 200 acres in the aquifer recharge zone with local environment advocate Bonnie Conner and her son Chris White. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report
Scott Gruendler bought his new ranch on Dal-Cin Drive after living close by, near the intersection of Borgfeld Drive and Bulverde Road. When the spreading development reached him there, he began selling off his 40-acre property and looking for a new rural refuge.
“I’ve seen the development and the sprawl, and so when we invested down here, it was to come down and get away and protect it,” Gruendler said. Enrolling in the EAPP was “a great way to protect it.”
City Council approved both conservation easements in April last year, and the two families signed theirs on the same day in June. The Chapmans got $746,430; the Gruendlers were paid $768,777.
Except for a few small building zones for family houses and barns negotiated ahead of time with the City, the Chapmans and Gruendlers would no longer be allowed to build on their property.
But within months, they received the first letters from engineers representing SAWS. First, the plans were only for a water line, but plans for the sewer line soon followed.
‘Don’t wait to hear from the board’The SAWS board signed off on the gravity-fed system in January of this year, amending an original plan it approved in June 2020. However, several board members recently made it clear that they didn’t really understand the full picture.
“I’m a bit disappointed that that wasn’t a part of our conversations,” SAWS Trustee Amy Hardberger said at the utility’s May 4 meeting.
Annalisa Peace, executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, was the first to raise the issue publicly. In an email to the group’s supporters she said the “issue puts a spotlight on just how problematic is the lack of coherent policy when SAWS service seemingly conflicts with our City’s goals for aquifer protection.”
“Never before has the City approved running SAWS utility lines through an EAPP-acquired conservation easement,” Peace said. “A decision in this matter will influence future treatment of our EAPP lands – sites that were intended to be protected in perpetuity.”
As Hardberger put it at the SAWS meeting, San Antonio’s conservations investments are “coming into a predictable collision course with our growth corridor.”
“If we’re going to continue to grow in a high-density way over the recharge zone, I don’t know how we’re going to avoid these things happening again,” Hardberger said.
SAWS Board Chair Jelynne LeBlanc Burley said the utility’s staff should have better communicated the unusual nature of San Antonio infringing on its own protected land.
“You know better than anybody when these issues are unique and sensitive,” Burley told SAWS staff. “Don’t wait to hear from the board that it’s important to them.”
On this, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said the utility’s staff members need to do better.
“It’s one of those things that I and my staff should know what’s important to y’all and that’s my role is to gauge what each one of you finds important and make sure that you all are told about those kinds of things,” Puente told board members on May 4.
But overall, Puente says SAWS is “handcuffed.”
“We fully understand that they didn’t sign up for this and they didn’t anticipate this,” Puente said of the Chapmans and Gruendlers. “But this is the best of the options we have.”
Puente, a lawyer and former politician who served 17 years as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives, wants to put the focus back on City Council, which he says could give SAWS and City staff more options by reforming the City’s development codes.
“We would love to have more options, but those are not available to us because City Council has certain policies, and those policies have not changed,” Puente said. “Until they change, these things are going to happen.”
‘We need policy’The Specht tract lies on the part of the map that falls within SAWS’ exclusive territory, where it holds a certificate of convenience and necessity, or CCN. By law, a Texas utility is required to hook up new customers within its CCN unless it formally opts out.
On the Specht Tract, SAWS officials say elevation changes and the CCN leave them with only three choices.
SAWS could avoid the protected land, but it must instead build a sewage line that would flow uphill for a short stretch along Blanco Road. This would require a force main, where sewage flows under pressure, along with at least two lift stations. Lift stations require an electrical connection to pump sewage uphill, and they’re vulnerable to spills when they lose power or clog with debris.
An earlier version of the Specht tract plan called for one lift station, said Andrea Beymer, SAWS’ vice president of engineering and construction.
“One lift station is tolerable; it would have been better than going through these conservation easements,” Puente said. “Multiple lift stations are not.”
SAWS could also formally request the area be removed from its CCN. Beymer said that Meritage Homes representatives told SAWS if that were to occur, they would build their own small wastewater treatment plant, a common choice for Hill County developers.
“They would run it until they made their money, and then who’s going to run it after that – SAWS,” Puente said.
A Meritage Homes vice president did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment.
That small sewage plant would also likely discharge its treated wastewater into Cibolo Creek, which also lies directly over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, according to SAWS.
Facing these alternatives, Puente said SAWS won’t finalize its utility service agreement with Meritage Homes until the board hears a risk assessment on the different alternatives at its June meeting.
“If [SAWS trustees] agree that we did the best we could under the circumstances, given the handcuffs that we have, that that is the best protection for the aquifer and [to] abide by our obligations, then they will let us know,”
Puente said. “If they feel there’s a better way, a different way, they’ll let us know and then there’s other avenues this developer’s going to have
Ultimately, Puente said, it’s up to City Council to set the policy that would avoid situations like this. One option: City Council could change City development codes to limit housing density over the recharge zone, Puente said.
“Amend the unified development code if you don’t like this issue going on,” Puente said. “If you don’t like what’s happening and you have the ability to change the rules, change the rules.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who voters reelected to his third term earlier this month, has acknowledged that when it comes to addressing sprawl, the ball lies in City Council’s court.
“We need policy,” said Nirenberg, a SAWS board member in his official capacity, at the May 4 meeting. The mayor said he can “understand the frustration on the part of the [SAWS] staff because it seems like we’ve been having this conversation every month about the need for a coordinated growth strategy with the City.
“We’ve been through a challenging year but it’s high time we coordinate that effort with our different departments,” the mayor said.
By Vanessa Puig-Williams
February 7, 2021
February 7, 2021
Texas’ rivers are iconic. The groundwater that sustains them is invisible.
We see the dichotomy in state law. Naturally flowing water in rivers and streams is owned by the state and held in trust for the public good. That’s because we can see that water and what it means. It provides for our cities, towns, farms, and ranches. We live, work and play beside it. And we rely on state law to prevent it from vanishing.
But groundwater law offers far less protection. In many areas of Texas, people have the right to pump as much groundwater as they want. Even where groundwater is managed by local conservation districts, the law allows overpumping to occur, causing groundwater levels to decline.
This can also cause rivers to decline. That’s because groundwater and surface water are intrinsically connected — nearly a third of the water in Texas’ rivers originates underground. Texas law, unfortunately, doesn’t fully recognize this connection.
The state’s population is booming, its climate is ever more susceptible to drought, and underground aquifers are increasingly vulnerable. That’s a huge risk to farmers, ranchers, big cities, small towns and wildlife. It also threatens the rivers and streams Texas is trying to protect.
Beneath the Surface, a new Environmental Defense Fund report outlining five major groundwater management challenges in Texas, shows that in many places, overstressed aquifers are already affecting life above-ground.
The Devils River in West Texas is considered the state’s most unspoiled and wild river. A huge amount of public and private investment has gone into protecting it. But studies by the Texas Water Development Board show that significant pumping from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, which feeds the river, can affect its surface water flow.
Val Verde County, where the Devils River originates, lacks a groundwater conservation district — a local agency with some authority to limit groundwater pumping. As Beneath the Surface notes, local residents and landowners worry that unregulated groundwater pumping will affect their
property rights to groundwater, harm flow to the Devils River and the nearby San Felipe Springs, and even affect the Rio Grande.
There’s more. Wimberley, just southwest of Austin, is home to a beloved spring-fed swimming hole called Jacob’s Well — a vertical cave dropping straight down into the Middle Trinity Aquifer. The spring provides about 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow and 100% of the flow in Cypress Creek, which flows through the heart of town.
In 2000, Jacob’s Well stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011 and 2013. This month, overpumping and a lack of rain has reduced Jacob’s Well to a trickle. The community is trying to save it.
Last year, after a lengthy, science-driven stakeholder engagement process, the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District adopted rules to maintain spring flow from Jacob’s well and to protect rural water supply wells from going dry. The rules create a 39-square-mile management zone that cuts permitted pumping when spring flow drops below a certain level, an indication of declining groundwater levels in the area. It’s a step toward conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water.
It’s also the exception in Texas.
Texas needs a clearer view of how groundwater pumping impacts surface water. By letting science guide management decisions at the local and state level, Texas can protect groundwater and the communities and ecosystems — and rivers and streams — it supports.
In its interim report released last month, the Texas House Committee on Natural Resources recommended creating an advisory board to develop recommendations for “improving the understanding and management of groundwater and surface interactions in Texas.”
This is a good first step. It would help Texans find a badly needed, Texas-specific solution to water management — one that preserves the state’s economy, its natural resources, and Texans’ lives and livelihoods.
September 7, 2021
Jane Hughson, San Marcos Mayor
Playing catch-up isn't going to work with water. You know, you can always go out and pave some roads, but with water, you've got to find the sources. Water is the new oil in Texas, and water is not plentiful. It is a renewable resource. It is not an unlimited resource.
Graham Moore, Alliance Regional Water Authority Executive Director
Today, we're in Rosanky, Texas, at an about 560-acre property that Alliance Regional Water Authority owns. This is the groundbreaking for our water treatment plant project. This is really the heart of what we need in order to bring on this new water supply for our customers.
We span a large area, generally from the south side of Austin to the north side of San Antonio. So, from Buda in the north, all the way down to the Gruene Valley in the south near the Cibolo area. It is a large swath in, really, a fast-growing part of the state.
Our water supply is Carrizo groundwater. So, we have to produce wells that retrieve the water out of the ground, bring it up, treat it here at the property that we're at today. And then we will pump that water to our different delivery points to our customers in the I-35 region.
Jane Hughson, San Marcos Mayor
This is huge because San Marcos is one of the fastest-growing cities. And one of the things you need to grow is clean water. We need water for people; we need water for industry. We're managing our growth as best we can but having the water source is going to be critical to our success.
Graham Moore, Alliance Regional Water Authority Executive Director
The need for this water supply source is purely driven by the growth in the corridor between Austin and San Antonio. We recently received census data that's shown in the past 10 years just what growth has occurred. We expect
that same type of growth to continue to occur for the next several decades. And so, the water supply source and the treatment we're doing here today will serve that future growth.
For this project, we are partnered with the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority or GBRA. We have a unique partnership where we're sharing in the capacity of the treatment facility and many of the transmission lines. In total, the project is about $400 million in cost. Alliance's share is $240 million dollars of that. We are 100 percent financed through the Texas Water Development Board and the SWIFT program.
Kristin Miller, Texas Water Development Board Environmental Reviewer
By working with the Texas Water Development Board, entities like Alliance Regional Water Authority are able to provide infrastructure that will provide a long-term source of drinking water to high-growth areas in the community. And will serve the community over the life of the facility.
Without this project, the member utilities will not be able to meet water needs by 2033 with the current water sources. According to the State Water Plan, the proposed project is anticipated to meet future regional needs through 2060.
Graham Moore, Alliance Regional Water Authority Executive Director
We're very excited to have the groundbreaking here today. It'll be about two years until the treatment plant is completed and our infrastructure network is in place to where we deliver water. So, summer of 2023 we expect to be delivering water to our customers.
Jane Hughson, San Marcos Mayor
We have to make sure that we've got water from sources that are sustainable, and that's what has been found. The groundbreaking today is so exciting, and it's one of the next phases of this project that's going to be important to so many in our region.
Study Highlights How Edwards Aquifer Protection Has Staved Off Water Scarcity
Water is essential to human existence. This is what motivated me to focus on the aquifer.
July 8, 2021
It’s known as Day Zero, when city residents will have to wait in lines for hours under the blazing sun with hopes of finding water. In 2019, this was the scene that played out in Cape Town, South Africa, before the city adjusted its water management practices. Farmers even stopped growing crops for a period of time.
UTSA geography researchers have now shown in a new study how the protective measures taken closer to home—in South and Central Texas along the fast-growing I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio—have helped protect our own water supply, the Edwards Aquifer. However, the study also identified key aquifer areas that are still at risk due to urbanization.
“I don’t think we need to get close to experiencing a Day Zero to understand the importance of protecting the Edwards Aquifer,” said Neil Debbage, assistant professor and urban climatologist in the UTSA Department of Political Science and Geography, who produced the study. “The protective measures we’ve taken up to now, to prevent over-development, have slowed urbanization where we need to.”
Cities in South and Central Texas have undergone rapid urban expansion that threatens our water supply. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Antonio was the fastest growing city in the United States between 2016 and 2017. Austin ranked 12th during the same period. As a result, drastic land use changes throughout San Antonio, Austin and the I-35 corridor were observed via the addition of new housing units, transit construction projects and widespread commercial development.
Justin Guerra, a master’s student in geography and co-investigator in this study, was a previous San Antonio resident. He saw the changes to the city once he relocated and used the population expansion as his motivation for the study.
“Once back, I wanted to participate civically,” Guerra explained. “I learned about the city’s proposed bond for the recharge zone. Later, I took the intro to GIS course at UTSA and saw for myself how land use changed (in the region). Water is essential to human existence. This is what motivated me to focus on the aquifer.”
The UTSA researchers analyzed aquifer protective measures and land-use change trends across different portions of the Edwards Aquifer to better understand the degree to which protective measures influenced aquifer urbanization rates. The National Land Cover Database was used to quantify urban development within the contributing and recharge zones of the Edwards Aquifer across Bexar, Travis, Williamson, Comal, and Hays counties for three time periods: 2001–2006, 2006–2011, and 2011–2016.
The cities of Austin and San Antonio first took active steps to protect the aquifer in the 1970s. However, development continued to occur in
sensitive areas, partly due to zoning variances. Austin created the Water Quality Protection Lands (WQPL) program which collectively has issued almost $300 million in bonds for land acquisitions and conservation easements as of 2018.
In San Antonio, there was limited progress in aquifer protection throughout the 1980s, and it was not until 1995 that the Aquifer Protection Ordinance was established. This ordinance also led to the creation of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) sensitive land acquisition program in 1997, which leveraged water supply fees to preserve the quality and quantity of water recharging the aquifer by purchasing sensitive properties and establishing conservation easements. City residents further supported aquifer protection in 2000 by approving Proposition 3, which involved a one-eighth cent addition to the local sales tax to acquire and protect sensitive areas over the aquifer via the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program (EAPP). The sales tax has been reapproved several times and raised approximately $325 million.
Recently, the aquifer sales tax addition was allowed to expire in 2020, and the sales tax funding was shifted to support workforce development and rapid transit projects. Revenue from SAWS will likely fund the EAPP moving forward, albeit at potentially lower levels.
How both cities approached protecting the aquifer resulted in different rates of urbanization atop the area. The study demonstrates that Bexar County exhibited the greatest reduction in the rate of urbanization within the recharge zone, although the percentage of the zone developed remained the highest. Conversely, the pace of recharge zone development in Travis and Williamson counties decreased less rapidly, but the percentage of the zone urbanized was lower. Limited urban development was observed across the aquifer in Comal and Hays counties during the study period.
Overall, the consistent declining rate of urbanization throughout the sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge zone suggests that the policies protecting the aquifer were largely effective, particularly given the rapid pace of urban growth throughout the region.
Yet there are specific troubling trends. For example, aquifer urbanization in areas such as Round Rock, Cedar Park, and Leander is worrisome since the only major protected area in the region is Lake Georgetown.
“The lack of protective measures implemented across the northern segment of the aquifer is partly due to Austin focusing its policy efforts primarily on the Barton Springs segment,” Debbage said. “While in Bexar County, expanding aquifer protection efforts in the northeast while also managing the westward expansion of development from the Interstate 10 corridor will likely be pivotal to successfully conserving the Edwards Aquifer landscape within the county.”
50 Years Ago, This Was a Wasteland. He Changed Everything
Almost 50 years ago, fried chicken tycoon David Bamberger used his fortune to purchase 5,500 acres of overgrazed land in the Texas Hill Country. Planting grasses to soak in rains and fill hillside aquifers, Bamberger devoted the rest of his life to restoring the degraded landscape. Today, the land has been restored to its original habitat and boasts enormous biodiversity. Bamberger's model of land stewardship is now being replicated across the region and he is considered to be a visionary in land management and water conservation.
By Gregg Eckhardt
The bottom line on residential conservation is that it is cheap and easy, and the water savings are real and immediate. Conservation is our cheapest, quickest source of additional water to support economic growth.
The reasons for conserving water and the impact of doing so are a little different in San Antonio than in most places. Lots of places get their water from surface reservoirs and when users conserve, the water remains in the reservoir for later use. In contrast, when users in San Antonio conserve water, all of the water conserved does not remain available for use tomorrow. Some of the water not pumped in San Antonio emerges as springflow at Comal and San Marcos springs. By conserving, users in San Antonio are helping to maintain springflows that are critical for endangered species habitats, recreational economies in New Braunfels and San Marcos, and downstream flows that support industries, cities, and fisheries along the coast. In this way, conservation benefits all of south Texas, which in turn benefits San Antonio, because we are all one
Think about this: Almost half of all the water we pump from the Aquifer is used outdoors in the summertime, which is also the time when rain is scarce and springflows are most likely to be low. It's easy to see why almost every summer we get in a "water crunch" and mandatory restrictions have to be imposed to protect the endangered species in the springs and all the uses below.
For those who adopt it, conservation is an attitude and a way of life. It is a way that YOU can make a personal statement about being committed to helping the San Antonio region and south Texas ensure adequate water supplies for everybody while continuing to grow economically, and it also shows your concern for the environment and the natural systems we depend on.
There are lots of ways to conserve water, and residents of San Antonio have already come a long way. In 1984, each person used about 225 gallons of water per day. By 2007, that had been reduced to 115 gallons per day. Of course, 2007 was a wet year and usage can be expected to be somewhat higher in dry years. In its 2012 Water Plan, the San Antonio Water System established a goal of maintaining a water use rate of 135 gallons per person per day. Per capita usage has been below that amount in most years since 2009, so we know that it is do-able, but it depends on you.
Even though we impose drought restrictions, it's a mistake to think that San Antonio is "water-poor" and is going to run out of water. We are always going to have enough water for our basic needs. It's the discretional outdoor use that mostly needs to be limited, and it has to do not only with ensuring springflows but also with cost. One of the recent trends that SAWS has noticed is that while overall water use has stayed about the same, the peaks in water demand are higher. This is likely due to the increasing trend of installing automatic sprinkler systems in new homes. In the water business, it's all about meeting the peak demand, and failing to do so is simply not an option. An electric utility can use tools like rolling brown-outs and people are inconvenienced, but having people go without water threatens public health and safety and is just not possible.
Now meeting the highest of peak demands is very expensive - a utility has to have everything in place including water supplies, tanks, pumps, and pipes, all to meet the peak demand on a few days a year. It's like having an expensive Lexus convertible parked in your driveway that you only use a few times a year, when most days you can drive your economical Toyota Corolla. This is why many utilities focus so much on outdoor use. Indoor conservation is important as well, but it's that discretionary outdoor use in the summertime that drives peak demands.
Consider the chart below, which is water supplied by SAWS each day during the drought year of 2011. Notice the saw-tooth pattern in the peaks that developed in the summertime. This was because outdoor watering was not allowed on weekends, so usage dropped dramatically on Saturdays and Sundays. At the point where all the daily fluctuations end, one could unscientifically draw a line and call everything above the line outdoor discretionary use. This is a large component of total water use and is the most important component in managing the peak demand.
SAVING WATER AT HOME
One of the main culprits in high water use households is St. Augustine grass. Other grasses like bermuda and zoysia will turn brown and dormant without water, but St. Augustine will die. It has been widely used in San Antonio for decades because it will grow in the shade, is easy to install, is relatively inexpensive, and it just sort of became a traditional, fashionable grass. Even though San Antonio sits on the edge of the vast Chihuahuan desert, the widespread use of St. Augustine gave the city the appearance of a green oasis throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Today, we are changing the face of the city so that it looks more like a town on the edge of a desert. This will go a long way toward ensuring our future water needs, and it doesn't mean you have to settle for an unattractive landscape.
Residents are finding there are many ways to create landscapes that are much more colorful and interesting than plain expanses of green lawn. Xeriscaping and wildscaping are becoming much more popular and can actually increase property values. Xeriscape plants are ones that can survive with little or no water once established, and many are native to the San Antonio area. Wildscaping usually involves mostly native plants, and the landscape is planned with the goal of attracting urban wildlife such as birds and butterflies. These landscapes can even include lots of
There is plenty of help available to people who want to undertake a xeriscaping or wildscaping project. Free brochures are available at most local nurseries, and the San Antonio Water System offers a water bill rebate of up to $400 to customers who install water-saving landscapes. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has some excellent material online about creating Texas Wildscapes and registering your wildscape with the Wildlife Diversity Program as a certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat!
Outside the house, you can also use mulch around trees and plants to slow evaporation, and you can spread compost on turf areas. You can also consider driving a dirty car to be the water-saver's badge of honor! If you have to wash it, you can save water by using a bucket instead of a hose, and make sure you use a nozzle you can turn off when not rinsing.
There are also a lot of things that individuals can do to conserve water inside the home:
SAVING WATER IN AGRICULURE
Nationally, about 70% of all the water used in the United States is used in agriculture. There is a large potential for conservation here. There are many ways that farmers can conserve water, and in the Edwards region a portion of the the water saved becomes another "cash crop" which they can sell or lease. They can install high-efficiency sprinkler systems, use drip irrigation instead of sprinklers, use mulch, install devices that measure potential evapotranspiration to get a better handle on irrigation needs, use precision land leveling to improve irrigation efficiency, and plant more water efficient crops.
In 2002, the Texas Water Development Board estimated that when one acre-foot of water is used commercially, it produces $335,305 in economic benefits. When that acre-foot is used residentially, it produces $39,514 in benefits. In contrast, an acre-foot of water used in agriculture produces only $121 in benefits. When farmers conserve water, they can not only lower their own costs but that water can then be directed toward a "higher and better use" that has far more economic benefit.
The EAA collects a significant amount of data each year and provides real-time data for stakeholders, scientists, educators and members of the community. Data consists of water chemistry, groundwater levels and precipitation, groundwater recharge, discharge and type of use. Additional data includes spring and stream flow measurements. Reports are published and available for review in the technical reports document library in this section. Additionally, up-to-date readings and historical data can be accessed here. Understanding how the aquifer works is essential to properly manage, enhance, and protect the Edwards Aquifer system.
Water level data are critical for EAA’s management of the San Antonio Pool and the Uvalde Pool of the Edwards Aquifer. Water levels are measured around the clock using different devices in monitoring wells throughout the aquifer. Water level data are used for many purposes, including as criteria for determining when to impose groundwater withdrawal reductions on aquifer users during droughts and understanding and appreciating our shared natural resource.
Water levels at the J-17 Index Well are provided here as raw data in 15-minute intervals. These are provisional readings and are subject to further qualitative review by the EAA.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
To ensure accuracy, the EAA uses three different devices to measure water level. The elevation of the water in the well—the potentiometric surface—is created by artesian pressure in the aquifer and is measured in feet above mean sea level (msl). For example, since the ground level at J-17 measures 730.8 feet above msl, when the water rises to 70 below the ground’s surface, subtracting 70 from 730.8 gives us an aquifer level reading in the San Antonio Pool of 660.8 feet above msl.
Every day, the highest water level recorded between the hours of 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. is reported as the daily high. However, during periods of heavy rain, water levels in the well may rise throughout the day so the highest water level would then be recorded in the late evening and a correction would be made to the previous reading. The EAA uses this information for official historical reporting and for determining and enforcing groundwater reductions during periods of high aquifer demand and/or drought.
Well J-27 is the official Edwards Aquifer water level index well for Uvalde County. Automated equipment in J-27 collects water level data which is reported to the EAA. To ensure that the public can view representative water level data, the daily high-water level will be reported on the EAA website. These are provisional readings and are subject to further qualitative review.
The EAA is solely responsible for obtaining and reporting water level readings from J-27. The EAA uses this information to determine when critical period management (drought management) pumping reductions are required for the Edwards Aquifer in Uvalde County.
COMAL SPRINGS/SAN MARCOS SPRINGS DATA
Average daily springflow measurement is conducted by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). For more information on how springflow is calculated, please visit the USGS Streamflow and Springflow at Comal and San Marcos Rivers page. Because these measurements reflect daily averages, they are reported for the previous day. Measurements are in cubic feet per second (cfs).
Visit the Historical Data page to view statistics and download data.
Bob and Leslie Scouras, who have a well on their property in Lee County, are among dozens of landowners who lowered their water pumps when groundwater levels dropped after a project began last year to export groundwater from the rural Central Texas area to San Antonio. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune
San Antonio Built a Pipeline to Rural Central Texas to Increase its Water Supply. Now Local Landowners Say Their Wells are Running Dry.
By Erin Douglas
August 2, 2021
August 2, 2021
A pipeline helped secure water for San Antonio for decades to come — at a potentially high cost to some rural residents who are losing groundwater to the big city. Is it a preview for the rest of the state as climate change brings more water scarcity and cities
LEXINGTON — When the water finally arrived, San Antonio’s leadership could relax. The roughly 150-mile long water pipeline to the northeast guaranteed the city’s economic future and freed residents from the stress of droughts.
“We have water security for decades to come,” said Robert Puente, president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System. Puente called the project, which came online in April 2020, the "biggest achievement in our lifetimes" to secure water for the city. The pipeline helped conserve the sensitive Edwards Aquifer, upon which San Antonio has historically depended for water.
But less than a year after the pipeline began to suck water from a different aquifer in Central Texas for delivery to 1.8 million people, some residents in that rural area turned on their taps only to be greeted by air.
“All so that the people in the city of San Antonio can water their lawns,” said Bob Scouras, 72, a landowner in Lee County.
Out on County Road 411, Scouras and his wife, Leslie, 63, raised and later sold their horses, raised kids and sent them to college, built dozens of houses for birds, and are almost done building one for their family. They commuted to Austin until retirement, as did many of their neighbors. The community is mostly retirees who bought the lush farmland decades ago for cheap.
They live near the wells that pump water to San Antonio, and their own well started sputtering less than a year after the Vista Ridge project went online. The Scourases live in a small farmhouse on their 20 acres of property. It was supposed to be temporary while they built their permanent home, but that took a little longer than expected (more than a decade). The house is almost done, and they plan to move in within a few weeks. But now, they’re not sure if they’ll have enough water to live on the land much longer.
“They didn’t care that I would be out of drinking water — they would have green lawns,” he said.
The situation underscores how important groundwater has become to Texas’ water future as climate change brings more frequent droughts along with longer and hotter summers, at the same time as the state’s population approaches 35 million. During the state’s most recent severe drought in 2011, groundwater supplied almost two-thirds of the increase in water consumption.
“The growth that we’ve had [in Texas], water ultimately underpins at a very fundamental level,” said Gabriel Collins, a Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University.
A severe drought in the Western U.S. this year has forced some areas to halt development due to water constraints, while other regions are battling widespread wildfires. A 2019 study authored by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists found that droughts are part of the spiral of climate change: High temperatures from global warming combined with low soil moisture to produce stronger heat waves.
But some rural landowners see the water export project in Central Texas not as a prudent response to climate change but as the perfect example of how unchecked urban expansion is encroaching on their lives. Pitting cities against rural dwellers and economic growth against environmental conservation, the Vista Ridge project, some experts said, is a preview of the water wars that will grow worse across Texas in coming decades. The fastest-growing use of water in Texas is no longer agriculture, but municipal, according to the state’s water plan, and municipal needs are projected to outstrip irrigation by 2060.
The burgeoning development of groundwater is also happening in a state with a patchwork of water laws that essentially allows anyone who owns or leases enough land — and the water below — to pump water, regardless of whether it affects neighboring properties for miles around. And because political boundaries don’t follow the natural underground water flows and formations, local regulations on pumping don’t necessarily protect everyone whose water wells are affected.
Since April 2020, when the project came online, groundwater levels in the area near Vista Ridge wells have plummeted, according to well data from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District. Texas is the third-largest groundwater pumper in the nation, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
The Vista Ridge project is permitted to pump nearly 56,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Carrizo and Simsboro formations. As the groundwater level retreats in their wells, residents have been forced to extend their pumps farther underground and upgrade to stronger equipment that can bring the water up from new depths. The work can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and there’s no guarantee they won’t have to drill deeper in the future.
Bob and Leslie Scouras spent about $5,000 on such work. Many of their older neighbors in the rural area were forced to do the same.
“It’s all about the money, and it’s all about the growth,” Bob Scouras said. “It’s not about anyone being thirsty.”
Leaders in San Antonio disagree. “The economic generators of the U.S. are cities,” said Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “Rural areas are still important,” he said, “but cities are what is driving the state and the country.”
Private water marketers worked over the course of a decade to put together thousands of water leases from rural landowners in the rolling and lush cattle ranch land of Burleson and Milam counties, about 50 miles east of Austin, to make the Vista Ridge project possible. The 18 water wells tap the Carrizo and Simsboro formations of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which underlies a long, narrow swath of the state from its southwest border to East Texas. Now operated by EPCOR, a Canadian utility company, the wells connect to the pipeline that runs southwest to a water station in Bexar County.
In the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which includes Milam and Burleson counties, more than a third of its water pumped from the Carrizo and almost three fourths of its pumped water from the Simsboro is flowing to San Antonio, according to data from the district. There, the imported water now fills about 20% of the city’s daily water needs.
Beginning last fall, dozens of landowners in Lee, Burleson and Milam counties — including some beyond the boundaries of the local groundwater district — began to notice problems with their wells as water dropped below the level their pumps could reach.
George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist in San Antonio who represented landowners opposed to the project, said he wasn’t surprised that residents now need to lower their pumps. The model that Rice created for his analysis in 2015 and 2016 predicted that, in one year of pumping, the Carrizo formation’s water level would drop by 54 feet within 5 miles of the Vista Ridge pumping, and 19 feet within a 10-mile radius in what is called the “confined zone” of the aquifer — pressurized sections of the aquifer that are sandwiched between impermeable rock or sand above and below. Such drops can put water levels out of reach of local residents’ pumps.
“If they’re lucky, they’ll just have to lower their pump, or if they’re unlucky, they’ll have to deepen their wells, which is more expensive,” Rice said.
Dan Martin, a retired cattle rancher who lives near the Vista Ridge wells in Burleson County, said his water stopped flowing while he was in the shower, “all soaped up.” He spent about $10,000 to fix the problem with his well, which he uses both for his home and 35 cattle — he had to pay for a new pump and piping to take the well 380 feet deeper.
Data from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, where the Vista Ridge wells are located, confirms anecdotal reports from residents. The district regulates use of groundwater in Milam and Burleson counties, but its decisions can also affect the aquifer’s conditions beyond the political borders. The district’s data shows water levels in several wells nearby have dropped dramatically. At a water well on County Road 324, about five miles from a cluster of Vista Ridge wells, water levels have sunk almost 100 feet since April 2020. That’s more than the well’s water had dropped in the 30 years since the district’s records began.
The change also cannot be explained by a drier year than normal. During the 2011 drought, which was much more severe than the conditions in 2020, the well near Caldwell lost only about 8 feet of water.
But the dropping water levels are allowed — even expected — under the permits that Vista Ridge received from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, as long as the project doesn’t exceed its permitted pumping limit.
“How we developed the wellfield ensured that there was sufficient spacing and pumpage rates so that any potential decline over time would be well within the limits [set by the groundwater district],” said Mark Janay, operating partner at Ridgewood Infrastructure, a New York infrastructure company that is the majority owner of the Vista Ridge project.
When asked how the company has mitigated impacts to local landowners’ wells, Janay said the company draws primarily from the deeper Simsboro formation, which landowners don’t rely on, and that the pumping from the Carrizo is limited by the local groundwater district.
"Ronnie McKee, and his wife, Nancy McKee, spent $720 to lower the water well pump at their home in Lee County in November. The well’s water level had dropped 43 feet in seven months, more than it had in the previous 30 years."
Hydrologists for Ridgewood and the groundwater district said the impacts to the water levels should taper off after a big initial drop. That’s what the groundwater districts are now monitoring for.
In Lee County, Nancy and Ronnie McKee spent $720 to lower their well pump in November. Well levels had plunged by 43 feet in seven months, more than in the previous 30 years. Nancy McKee said she attended public meetings in the years before the project began operating and was told she had nothing to worry about.
“They said, ‘It’s not going to affect you,’” she said. “The proof is in the pudding.”
McKee said she and her neighbors feel forgotten by local officials and ignored in the process of endless urbanization.
“We’re just regular people,” she said. “For this to come up and be such an expense for us is so disheartening.”
SAN ANTONIO THIRSTS FOR SECURITY
San Antonio began to seriously consider diversifying its water supply in the 1990s when environmentalists won a lawsuit to protect the Edwards Aquifer, which the city had relied upon for decades. Overuse was causing damage to endangered species, and as a result, the city’s allowed extractions from the aquifer were cut by 44% during severe droughts. San Antonio began to look elsewhere for water — a politically arduous task because importing water would be extremely expensive and potentially damaging to the environment.
But in 2011, the political climate shifted: One of the worst droughts in Texas history convinced San Antonio’s City Council to approve a water rate hike for water development. Suddenly, local politicians were in favor of building a
desalination plant, practicing more aggressive water conservation and building the $3 billion Vista Ridge pipeline. The business community went on a “quest” to diversify water sources because fears of water shortages were hurting economic development, said Perez, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO.
“The 2011 drought was happening right during the time that we were starting to develop [Vista Ridge],” said Puente, of the San Antonio Water System. “The public’s perception of the urgency and need for the project was heightened.”
Leslie Scouras, left, and her husband, Bob Scouras, spent $5,000 to update the water pump on their property in Lee County. After groundwater levels retreated in area wells last year, some residents extended their pumps farther underground and upgraded to stronger equipment that can bring the water up from new depths — work that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune
Most major cities in Texas rely on surface water, like reservoirs, for municipal needs. But those sources are particularly vulnerable to drought because the water evaporates. The 2011 drought caused billions in economic damages to the agricultural industry, strained the state’s electric grid and forced nearly 1,000 public water systems to restrict water usage; 23 water systems were within 180 days of completely running out of water.
In San Antonio, the city relied on water it had previously pumped from the Edwards Aquifer and stored underground.
Because of such possibilities in the future, San Antonio’s strategy to diversify its water supply with a desalination plant, conservation and the Vista Ridge groundwater pipeline could be considered a model for other cities. The alternative — building a new reservoir — requires buying the land and relocating people, farms or businesses on it, then damming a river or creek and flooding the land.
Janay, of Ridgewood Infrastructure, thinks more groundwater projects will likely be necessary across Texas. It’s a matter of managing the impacts, which he thinks the Vista Ridge project has done by adhering to the groundwater district’s limits.
“We’re going to have to be more thoughtful in developing future supplies, and we may have to go further and transport water further,” Janay said. Continued groundwater development can occur, he said, “in a thoughtful manner that is supported by science.”
“We need to find that balance,” he said.
TEXAS' "PATCHWORK" OF GROUNDWATER REGULATION
Despite the growing importance of groundwater, Texas is the only state in the West — where water is particularly scarce — that still uses the “rule of capture,” which essentially allows landowners to pump as much groundwater from their property as they want without facing liability from surrounding landowners.
But Collins, of Rice University, said a patchwork of local rules from the 98 groundwater conservation districts in the state means the rule is applied in many ways, including where different districts have different rules for the same large aquifer. More than 20 districts regulate water use for the massive Carrizo-Wilcox, which spans from East to Southwest Texas.
The Vista Ridge Project took advantage of those differences. San Antonio water officials said the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, where the project is now located, allowed landowners to lease their water for several decades at a time, while many other districts limit leases to a few years.
“[The district] has a philosophy that a lot of other groundwater districts do not, and that is that this is a private water resource: If you want to sell it, sell it,” said Puente of the San Antonio Water System. “They regulate it, but they still allow for those transactions to happen.
“So this was the best water for us for two reasons: Geographically, the aquifer is very prolific, and politically, just as important, those rules in that county allowed for the exportation of water all the way to San Antonio.”
Groundwater districts are charged by the Legislature to create a goal for how much water should be conserved in the coming decades, a target called “desired future conditions.” The districts use that goal to set limits on pumping. But those limits vary widely from district to district, and as long as a company pumps less than the permitted amount, the groundwater district isn’t obligated to intervene when a neighbor’s supply is affected.
The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District responded to dwindling groundwater levels with a well mitigation program that compensates landowners for the cost to lower their pumps or even drill a new well. Groundwater officials said the limits they’ve set in the district are sufficient to conserve water in the region, and the landowners who agreed to lease water for the project have a right to do what they want with the water below their land.
“We’ve been diligent about being conservation-minded, but also respectful of property rights,” said Gary Westbrook, general manager of the groundwater district. “People have the right to sell their water if that’s what they want to do.”
The numbers show how deep the water was from the surface. Higher numbers equal lower water levels. Measurements taken in the winter from 2001 and 2020 showed water levels were stable, only dropping from roughly 120 to 190 feet over two decades. But that changed when Vista Ridge started pumping in April 2020. A measurement taken in March 2021 showed water levels had fallen to 280 feet below the surface, an almost 50% drop in just one year. The bottom of the well is 840 feet below the surface.
"Water levels have plunged.
Wells in the Carrizo formation are losing water, according to groundwater district data. This chart shows an example of one well on the west side of Burleson County that’s located a few miles from Vista Ridge’s pumping station."
Outside that district, though, landowners who didn’t lease their water — or even know that their neighbors had done so — have seen water levels drop. The Scouras and McKee families both live in Lee County, in the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.
The Lost Pines district didn’t grant any permit to Vista Ridge, nor did it collect any fees from the project, but it will soon have to pay to fix wells. In response to complaints from landowners, James Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines district, said the district recently created a program to reimburse landowners for the cost to lower or upgrade their pumps, and it is considering a moratorium on pumping water in areas where the water levels have dramatically dropped in the last year.
“We may not have the ability to control Vista Ridge, but we can say we won’t allow any project that would make the situation in that area worse on our side of the border,” Totten said.
But those efforts won’t stop the longer-term impact of exporting water south to San Antonio, residents say. Bob Scouras is worried that if the water levels don’t stabilize, his neighborhood will soon have to ask the nearest water utility to build lines out to the property.
“The big question is: Where the hell are we going to get our water in five years?” he said. “San Antonio is not real worried about us out here. We’re just a bunch of hayseeds [to them].”
Answers to Questions about Aquifers in Texas
By Joe Ford
March 29, 2021
March 29, 2021
How much water does the Edwards Aquifer hold?
In total, the Aquifer may hold between 25 and 55 million acre feet (Maclay, 1989). However, most of that water is not available in legal or practical terms. Springflow depends on the upper five to ten percent of the formation, so the Aquifer is still 90-95% full when all the springs run dry.
Will the Edwards Aquifer run out of water in 15 years?
The Edwards is not a good storage aquifer where water stays put for use tomorrow. As long as enough hydraulic pressure exists to force water up of the level of springs, significant amounts of water will flow out. In a 3-5 year drought, all the water that was recharged during wet times will have left the Aquifer.
How large is the Edwards Aquifer?
Located in South Central Texas, the Edwards Aquifer encompasses an area of approximately 4,350 square miles (11,300 km2) that extends into parts of 11 counties.
What is the depth of Edwards Aquifer?
The Edwards Aquifer is an underground layer of porous, honeycombed, water-bearing rock that is between 300-700 feet thick.
How deep is the Trinity aquifer?
Depths of wells completed in the Trinity aquifer commonly range between 50 and 800 feet, but some well depths exceed 3,000 feet; the deeper wells are in the confined zone; Wells commonly yield from 50 to 500 gallons per minute, and some yield as much as 2,000 gallons per minute.
What is the largest aquifer in Texas?
The Ogallala Aquifer is the largest aquifer in the United States and is a major aquifer of Texas underlying much of the High Plains region.
What is the J-17 index well used for?
It has been used since 1956 to record changes in the level of the Aquifer in the San Antonio area. The level of the J-17 well has ranged from 612 feet during the 1950’s drought to 703 feet after historic rains in 1991 and 1992.
What is the largest use of water in the US?
Thermoelectric power and irrigation remained the two largest uses of water in 2015, and total withdrawals decreased for thermoelectric power but increased for irrigation. Withdrawals for thermoelectric power were 133 Bgal/d in 2015 and represented the lowest levels since before 1970.
What are the largest aquifers in the world?
The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is one of the largest underground freshwater sources in the world. It underlies an estimated 174,000 square miles of the Central Plains and holds as much water as Lake Huron.
What are the major aquifers in Texas?