Reducing Water Use in Urban Landscapes
By Todd Votteler
July 25, 2022
July 25, 2022
Texas+Water Editor-in-Chief, Dr. Todd Votteler, talks with Dr. Becky Bowling, Assistant Professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Specialist for Urban Water, about managing outdoor water usage during times of drought in Texas.
Bowling is the AgriLife Extension lead for the Texas Water Resources Institute’s Urban Water Innovation and Sustainability Hub at the Dallas Center. In her position, she works jointly with AgriLife Research and with AgriLife Extension’s extensive network of Specialists, Regional Program
Leaders, and County Extension Agents to develop and deliver outreach programming and resources to critical audiences on the topics of environmental stewardship, water conservation, and water quality protection for urban landscapes and beyond.
Through her work, Dr. Bowling strives to build and maintain relationships with a wide range of influential stakeholders and regulatory agencies to ensure that the Urban Water Extension Program reflects the needs and priorities of its diverse clientele throughout the state.
Removing the Mystery of Groundwater
By Robin Gray
June 17, 2022
June 17, 2022
What makes the Texas Hill Country unique? In my mind, it comes down to one thing: groundwater. It is impossible to overstate the importance of groundwater to this precious region, because without it, the Hill Country would not be the region we know and love.
Although groundwater is invisible, concealed under layers of limestone beneath the land within aquifers, it sustains the springs and rivers that shape and define the Hill Country—from imposing limestone bluffs carved over millennia by the Guadalupe, to ancient shadowy Cypress trees with roots extending like tentacles into the clear waters of the Frio, to the trickling fern-lined springs tucked along tributaries of the Blanco. It is the beauty and abundance of the Hill Country’s water resources that have attracted people here for thousands of years.
As the recently published State of the Hill Country Report reveals, the region is on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success. The report introduces eight key metrics to help track the region’s health and guide decisions that will determine whether the region will continue to thrive or live beyond its means.
Unfortunately, current levels of groundwater pumping threaten to dry up rivers and springs as the Hill Country heads down the second path of living beyond its means.
POPULATION GROWTH PUTS PRESSURE ON GROUNDWATER
Indigenous communities were the first peoples to settle near springs (Barton, San Marcos, Comal, San Antonio) that cradle the eastern edge of the Hill Country, traversing the outcrop of the Edwards Aquifer from which they are sourced. Many indigenous groups, such as the Coahuiltecan people, believe these springs to be sacred and part of their creation story.
Today, unfortunately, groundwater is more of a commodity than a revered resource. The Hill Country is one of the fastest growing regions in the country, with its population increasing nearly 50% in the last 20 years. Much of this growth is occurring along the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, and groundwater is increasingly being used as a source of water for new sprawling suburban developments and growing towns.
Landowners recognize that groundwater is a critical water supply in rural areas, indeed often the sole source of water. But many people, particularly from urban areas, do not always appreciate the connection between groundwater in the Hill Country and the cool, clear swimming holes they escape to on a scorching summer afternoon. Even our legal and regulatory framework ignores the connection between groundwater and surface water, providing no clear pathway to holistically manage these two interconnected resources.
Yet the connection is profound. Five of the top 10 largest springs in Texas come from groundwater in the Edwards Aquifer, as the State of the Hill Country Report notes. And smaller swimming holes, like Blue Hole in Wimberley, Hamilton Pool, or the Blanco River, are sustained by groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer.
THESE SPRINGS AND RIVERS ARE IN DANGER OF
Increases in groundwater pumping lowers aquifer levels, which can ultimately break the connection between groundwater and surface water. For example, drought conditions coupled with increased groundwater use have caused Jacob’s Well to stop flowing several times within the last decade, even though it flowed continuously through the drought of record in the 1950s.
Although just a few feet of drawdown in the aquifer level will reduce spring flow from Jacob’s Well, groundwater conservation districts in the area have not adopted a long-term
management goal (referred to as a desired future condition, or DFC) that will ensure Jacob’s Well continues to flow in the future. In fact, the current goal allows a 30-foot drawdown in the Trinity Aquifer across the region through 2060, which experts say should be decreased in order to sustain water supply and spring flows for Jacob’s Well.
HOW TO REDUCE GROUNDWATER PUMPING AND PROTECT OUR BELOVED HILL COUNTRY WATER RESOURCES.
The Hill Country needs to grow smartly and sustainably, encouraging water reuse and rainwater collection through increased incentives to developers and landowners. Alternative water supplies must be developed, like aquifer storage and recovery where water can be stored in aquifers during wet years and pumped out when needed during dry years. Ecologically valuable land that acts as a sponge, soaking and funneling rain underground and recharging aquifers must be protected.
On the demand side, landowners should be compensated to conserve their groundwater and to steward their land for enhanced recharge. In some cases, certain restrictions against groundwater pumping should be implemented in critical areas that recharge springs and rivers. The Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District has been on the frontlines of this approach, developing stakeholder-driven, science-based policies to manage groundwater in the Jacob’s Well Groundwater Management Zone to protect both landowners’ wells and spring flow. Groundwater districts managing the Trinity Aquifer must consider and adopt desired future conditions to maintain spring flow, as the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has done for Barton Springs.
Additionally, investment in science like local data and groundwater modeling can better inform policy to protect the connection between groundwater and surface water. In partnership with Hays County and other stakeholders, the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is working on an integrated groundwater and surface water model for the Blanco River Watershed, the first-of-its-kind in the Hill Country, which will enable groundwater conservation districts to understand how increased groundwater pumping impacts springs and flow in the Blanco River.
Ultimately, the Hill Country needs more voices advocating for all of these policies to protect both our groundwater and iconic rivers and springs that depend on them. Rural landowners, farmers, wildlife, fishermen, hunters, ranchers, towns, breweries, swimmers all depend on groundwater to give adequate flow to springs, creeks and rivers. It is up to all of us to conserve and protect these water resources that make our Hill Country thrive.
Rethinking Our Relationship with Hill Country Water Before It's Too Late
By Jennifer Walker
April 11, 2022
April 11, 2022
Water is an integral part of the Hill Country fabric, and it is embodied in the rivers and springs that make this region special. It is also the single most limiting factor in the Hill Country. The region’s population is growing rapidly and, according to a comprehensive new study from the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network, there simply isn’t enough water available from traditional sources to match current consumption patterns. We need to urgently rethink how we capture water—and how we consume it.
To better understand the scope of water supply pressures in the region, we looked at per capita water consumption (or GPCD) as part of the newly released State of the Hill Country Report. This metric is simply the water use in a community divided by its population. Our analysis shows a wide variation in water usage across the region. While there are several factors that may lead to a high GPCD in one community over another, it is clear we have a big opportunity and a responsibility to focus on reducing per capita water use where possible for the good of the region.
The big takeaway from this study is that while per capita consumption varies considerably across the region, it increasingly exceeds what is available from traditional surface and groundwater sources. Current use patterns severely threaten the region’s rivers, springs, aquifers and ecosystems.
This is not an impossible problem to solve. There are tried and true solutions available to reduce water use through conservation and efficiency. These tools are well-known and are being used with great success in cities like San Antonio and Austin. We can learn from our peer communities and put programs in place to make a real dent in our water use.
We can also develop additional water supplies to meet growing water needs by making use of sources of water in our communities that we do not traditionally count as water supply. These include rainwater, AC condensate, stormwater, and treating and reusing wastewater—all common sense solutions to meeting our future water supply needs. These tools are part of a growing practice known as One Water, an integrated water management approach that could greatly benefit the Hill Country.
When considering future water supply for the Hill Country, we also need to think beyond water for people. Using water in excess of what is available from our rivers and aquifers can negatively impact fish and wildlife habitat
and the natural resources and landscapes that make the Hill Country special and unique. This is not a future that any of us want to contemplate, but we must act today to avoid that outcome tomorrow.
In addition to water consumption, the State of the Hill Country presents data concerning pristine stream and spring flow metrics. Protecting water supplies, water quality, and spring flow are linked—each influences the other and should not be considered in a vacuum. Sustainable policies for land and water management require forethought and collaboration. These efforts will benefit all of us.
The State of the Hill Country tells us we have a number of natural systems under a growing amount of pressure from growth and development. We will soon reach the point where the impact of human harms will make it impossible to recover. The solutions to a more sustainable Hill Country future are at hand, and we need to embrace them before it's too late. Everyone who lives, works or visits the Hill Country has a role to play in protecting these vital water resources as the region inevitably grows.
Jennifer Walker is the Deputy Director of the Texas Coast and Water Program at National Wildlife Federation. In 2021, she was appointed by the Texas Water Development Board to represent Environmental Interests on the Texas Water Conservation Advisory Council, and she also serves on the Executive Committee for the Texas Hill Country Conservation Network.
Groundwater and Surface Water 3D Animation
By Robin Gary
January 31, 2022
January 31, 2022
In the Hill Country, groundwater and surface water are connected. Clear springs feed our iconic creeks and rivers. Water recharges aquifers (our groundwater supply) through caves and fractures in creek and riverbeds.
Groundwater and surface water are managed differently. Groundwater is considered a private property right and managed through local groundwater conservation districts. Surface water is property of the State of Texas and water rights are administered through river authorities.
The challenges of growing population, increased development, and climate change are going to stress our water resources–now and in the coming years. This video does an excellent job of showing how groundwater and surface water are connected throughout Texas. Being aware, making informed decisions, and conserving the limited water resources are essential to preserving Texas’ natural beauty for future generations.
Great job to the Environmental Defense Fund, Hill Country Alliance, Meadows Center for the Environment, and Texas Water Foundation for the Beneath the Surface and Above: The Journey of Groundwater video.
Scientists Seek Ways to Help Nature Safeguard Aquifer Amid Development
San Antonio Express-News
September. 6, 2021
San Antonio Express-News
September. 6, 2021
On a four-wheeler at the edge of the Hill Country, geologist Mark Hamilton rolls and bumps across a 151-acre property at the Edwards Aquifer Conservancy Field Research Park.
He pulls up to the end of a steep hill and points out a sunken, marshy spot along the bottom. With several recently planted trees and bushes of native plants nearby, the spot is among many that Hamilton and his team have resculpted by hand.
But their work is about much more than landscaping. It’s about water — developing natural methods and standards that communities can implement to accommodate growth while maintaining the health of the Edwards Aquifer, this region’s most important water source.
At the marshy spot where Hamilton stopped, he said water runoff from the top of the hill will be captured there instead of flowing into Cibolo Creek and seeping into the aquifer. The process slows the water and filters sediments and organic matter, resulting in healthier soil and cleaner water.
“It’s nothing fancy, and it’s incredibly low-tech,” said Hamilton, executive director of aquifer management services at the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “But it’s really impressive.”
As development in this region continues to rapidly expand, concerns for the environment and the aquifer grow with it. So Hamilton and others are seeking ways to change the current landscape — literally.
He and a team of environmental researchers, permaculturalists and scientists are creating a system of land management practices for conservation easements and developments that is native to the region. Since 2019, Hamilton spends a few days each week conducting research on the property, which the city of San Antonio bought under a conservation easement and gifted to the conservancy for research.
While there are several requirements for developing property over the aquifer that address issues such as water runoff, Hamilton and his team hope their work can offer more tools to manage growth.
“Changes in Texas are coming no matter what,” Hamilton said. “But we believe we can try to restore the balance.”
A BANG IN DEVELOPMENT
New Braunfels is one of the focal points in the quest to safeguard the aquifer. The city and unincorporated parts of Comal County sit over the recharge zone, an area that collects water to refill the aquifer.
“We’ve been having conversations not only about the impact that growth would have on the general drinking water supply, but also the impact that growth will have on infrastructure, stormwater runoff and transportation,” Comal County Judge Sherman Krause said. “It’s been a much broader discussion that has been going on for a long time.”
From 2010 to 2019, New Braunfels’ population increased by 56.4 percent, from 57,676 to more than 90,000. Some of that growth moved north and west of the city into the recharge zone. Any development in the area must comply with requirements of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and Comal County has additional regulations for developing subdivisions, including water availability plans and rules to contain
Improperly controlled water runoff from impervious cover, such as streets and driveways, can drag oil, pesticides or other chemicals into the
“It’s definitely a balancing act between allowing growth and new homes and protection of the Edwards Aquifer,” said Mark Enders, the watershed program manager for New Braunfels.
The city inspects subdivisions over the recharge zone to ensure developers are complying with TCEQ requirements on such things as stormwater treatment systems.
Meanwhile, conservation activists such as Helen Ballew of the Comal County Conservation Alliance believe that development over the recharge zone is fraught with peril.
“New Braunfels is built on water. Its economy is built on water,” Ballew said. “Land protection has to go hand in glove with managing all the development. The consequences of inaction are too great. Preserving some of what we love about this place is an imperative we can’t ignore or put off another day.”
The Conservation Alliance has been looking for ways to work with officials to fund land protection in watersheds, an initiative that Krause said has been a consideration for some time in Comal County. Unlike Bexar County, Comal does not have a conservation easement program.
Recently, Comal County commissioners approved an application to the Texas Water Development Board for funding for water quality and habitat conservation.
“We’ve been talking about how we can better serve not only our property and the Hill Country character, but what we can do about loss of habitat here and around Comal County,” Krause said.
THE NEXT GENERATION
Hamilton knows well the ongoing issues in Comal County and the need for conservation. As he rounds a corner on his four-wheeler, he points out another sunken spot with native plants — called a berm and swale system. The hope is that by slowing the runoff, the process will improve the quality of surface water and groundwater and will increase the quantity of water in the aquifer.
Eventually, if Hamilton’s research is successful, these berm and swale systems could be implemented in established conservation easements, and if that goes well, the systems could be incorporated in new developments in the recharge zone — supplementing TCEQ requirements — or even in the aquifer drainage areas in Bandera and Kendall counties.
It’s all very new though, Hamilton said. The work at the Field Research Park is on a small scale. And while the science is still underway, the methods being tested appear to work.
Through ground sensors, the team can analyze how healthy the soil is in areas that have been managed, compared with those that haven’t. So far, data shows that the soil where Hamilton has put in his berm and swale system is stronger and healthier.
Deeper and healthier soils with more organic matter are able to filter more water and contribute more to the recharge zone.
“We’re trying to restore this land to what it might’ve looked like 200 or 300 years ago,” he said, “before any development or settlers, when system could function on its own without our help.”
By protecting the recharge zone and improving the quality and quantity of the water, this region can have fewer drought restrictions, higher spring flows at Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs, and more protection for endangered species — even as development and growth continue.
“It’s like building something by 1,000 little steps,” said Roland Ruiz, general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “It’s not a silver bullet, not something we can do with one fell swoop, but we can start building, and maybe we can do something to preserve this resource.”
To the Field Research Park team, it’s not necessarily a choice between development or conservation. It’s a matter of making sustainable natural resources that can lead to sustainable human development and — if done the right way — be part of the conservation cycle.
But Hamilton doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself. It’s all observational at the research park; almost like watching one of his young native trees grow, it will take a while to have final results.
“That’s the hard part, that it might take five, six, seven years. … It might take a few million more dollars of funding to get there,” he said. “But you know, we’re going to continue to try.”
Banking On Watersheds
By Dr. Larry Sunn
Last month’s aquifer awareness article prompted questions about aquifer recharge and the quality of water gained from them; both are heavily dependent on how we interact with our watersheds. A watershed encompasses land surface that collects and drains water into an exit point. Everyone on the planet lives on a watershed somewhere. Everything we do for work, play, school, shopping, farming, or recreation occurs on a watershed. They can be as large as the Mississippi basin or as small as your lot in your hill country neighborhood from which water flows off your yard, roof, and driveway into streets and out to your local creek or Canyon Lake.
Water is the ultimate resource. For decades engineering practices sought to capture, concentrate, and convey water away from a site as quickly as possible. The old “drain-age” is evolving into a new paradigm of “retain-age” with a call to slow the water down, spread the water out, sink the water into the land, store the water in the aquifer, and share the water with all forms of life.
Practical applications, such as bio-swales and rain gardens help to biologically filter stormwater and enrich water quality—more on these conservation alternatives in future editions. These alternative applications enhance water quantity by optimizing groundwater recharge and reducing peak run-off flows. If you live in a steep hill country watershed or a low-lying flood plain, rain garden ideas may be challenging to implement. You will need to evaluate your slope stability, soil porosity, storm event size, and subsequent run-off volumes of your site to determine which of these concepts are appropriate.
Conserving water via watershed management is much like sound family budget management; the steps are equivalent to our income, deposits, savings, and expenses. We want the water balance of our watersheds to run in the blue and not in the red.
RAINFALL = INCOME. Our central Texas watersheds only receive water as rainfall—OK, and sometimes snowfall. Our 30” in annual precipitation is the only true source of income to re-supply our community's water budget allowance. Our county and city officials help by implementing storm water run-off plans, requiring detention and retention ponds, and enforcing land use patterns that enhance the receptive capacity of our watersheds.
RECHARGE = DEPOSITS. Recharge processes are critical for the water cycle to refresh itself via a deposit slip called infiltration. The capacity to make water deposits depends heavily on the watershed's speed and its recharge potential. Much of the Edwards Aquifer is recharged via direct infusion. Trinity recharge must percolate and be absorbed, or else there is no replenishment of our Trinity water savings account. Both aquifers’ recharge potential is impaired by building and paving over natural recharge areas or disconnecting established rivers from their floodplains. So, local jurisdictional stormwater techniques and tree preservation ordinances are put in place to help undisturbed native vegetation retain water to better feed the aquifers.
RETENTION = SAVINGS. Retaining recharged precipitation is a savings account asset. Storing water is often the most challenging aspect of water supply management. Stock tanks and swales, as well as retention and detention ponds, all increase the residence time of water in temporary storage pools in our watersheds. This helps optimize water absorption for Trinity aquifer recharge.
RELEASE = EXPENSE. The water expense element takes many forms, from our well straws drilled into the aquifer to evaporation to transpiration—the latter two being parts of the continuous water cycle we learned about in middle school. The nature of this cycle is to continually revolve because nature’s “expense” stage is necessary to produce the “income” stage. However, our human development practices (e.g., creating impervious surfaces, channelizing stormwater) tend to increase the rate and volume of stormwater's return to the gulf via excessive runoff and flood discharges. This, then, directly reduces the landscape's ability to retain water and diminishes the amount of water available in the aquifer for later release during the dry season.
The implementation of watershed conservation practices helps to amplify recharge and optimize retention. These “four Rs” of watershed conservation: rainfall, recharge, retention, and release help ensure optimal amounts of water will be available “in the bank” for future release.
Feel free to send rainwater capture questions to us at the Comal Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, Dr. Sunn at email@example.com. Our water well and rain catchment consulting services are offered to the public without charge.
Conserving Our Water, Saving Our Springs
NBU Connections — Special Edition 2021
A Word From CCCA Consultant Helen Ballew
The I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin is one of the fastest growing regions in the country. More people means more demand on the aquifer, even though we have other (more expensive) water supplies coming on line. Some might say “Why worry? We have this vast amount of good clean water underground. We won’t run out, and besides, it’s cheap.”
We might not literally run out of fresh drinking water from the aquifer, but if we draw it down too far to get that water, we could lose our great springs. When the springs run dry, the rivers run dry, water-based tourism disappears, and economies dry up. When alternative sources of water are needed to make up the difference, the cost of water goes up.
If the Edwards Aquifer is so important to our community well-being and even our pocketbooks, how can we protect this exceptional groundwater supply and its great springs? We can do that first and foremost by conserving water, using less, thus keeping it in the ground. If you don’t use it, you don’t lose it, and you don’t have to pay for it.
Comal Springs is one of the ‘Great Springs of Texas.’ In fact, it is the largest spring system in the American Southwest, and it issues from one of the most prolific groundwater sources in the world – the Edwards Aquifer. These facts might make those of us who live here feel proud, but they should also give us pause. Why? Because the growing demands on the aquifer endanger it and threaten its future as a relatively inexpensive water supply.
Comal County Conservation Alliance Consultant
The Future of Texas' Water Resources
NBU Connections — Special Edition 2021
A Word From Our Hill Country Alliance Partner Katherine Romans
The Texas Hill Country is a region defined by its water resources. From the banks of the Blanco to the secret swimming holes of the Guadalupe to the pristine waters of the Comal, our creeks, rivers, and springs are the source of our economic and ecological resilience. Millions of Texans, from Mountain Home to Matagorda Bay, rely on those flows for their livelihoods and quality of life. And yet, our water resources are in immediate jeopardy. Booming population growth means increasing strains on an already over-allocated resource. Three of the top five fastest growing counties in the country - including Comal County - are right here in the Hill Country. More roads, rooftops, and driveways mean less opportunity for precious rainfall to percolate into our groundwater supply. More development means additional straws pumping water from our aquifers. There simply is not anendless supply of water in our creeks, springs, and rivers to sustain the projected doubling of our current population over the next 30 years.
Time and again, studies show that conserving the water we already have is the most cost-effective way to secure our water future. The Hill Country Alliance and our partners in the Texas Living Waters Project work with residents, landowners, cities, and utilities to promote water conservation practices across the region and the state.
Conservation actions taken now will continue yielding water benefits well into the future. Each of us has a role to play in protecting the waters of the Hill Country. By installing low-flow fixtures, native and drought-tolerant landscapes, capturing rainwater off our roofs, and being savvy consumers of water resources, we can all contribute to ensuring the waters that define this region are here to sustain future generations. We hope you’ll dig in to learn more about the Hill Country’s water resources at hillcountryalliance.org.
A Message From Ian Taylor, NBU Chief Executive Officer
As Chief Executive Officer of New Braunfels Utilities (NBU), I lead a passionate team dedicated to educating our customers about the intricate details of rate design and assisting customers with utility bill management. A key component is understanding how conservation is directly linked to preserving our water supply and providing the most cost-effective water
resources. As you read this special edition of NBU Connections, you will hear from experts on our team as well community partners, including the Comal County Conservation Alliance, a Texas Master Gardener, and the Hill Country Alliance, about the importance of conservation and its impact on our economic well-being.
‘God is Not Making More Honey Creeks’: Longtime Neighbors Clash Over Planned Hill Country Development
Joyce Moore lives in Gillespie County, but on many weekends, she makes the roughly hourlong drive south to Bulverde to the 640-acre ranch where she grew up, land that has been in her family for nearly 150 years.
Last Saturday, termite damage was the issue of the day. She and her 19-year-old son Josh worked in 103-degree heat fixing a decaying roof on a century-old pumphouse. After long days such as this, Moore likes to drive up to the old chapel on the hillside, where she can see across the rolling hills of oak, juniper, prickly pear, and native grasses.
"I used to enjoy coming out here," Moore said. "Now, I don't, and I can't with what's to come."
Moore now only sees what will soon change that view forever. A massive residential subdivision planned by her neighbor to the south originally called for 2,400 homes packed on small lots. Ronnie Urbanczyk and his wife, Terry, own approximately 560 acres and have lived in the area 6 miles northwest of Bulverde on State Highway 46 since the early 1990s.
Moore remembers when she first heard about the Urbanczyk development from one of the hunters to whom she leases her land. "I felt sick to my stomach," she said.
CCCA & Great Springs Project Create Protected Land Map
Edwards Aquifer is a world class freshwater supply in a world where that should really mean something. Its crystal clarity and purity provides clean drinking water for millions of people, and it gives rise to great beautiful springs that have nourished minds, bodies and spirits for thousands of years. These great springs have, in turn, given rise to great cities: mainly San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin. We are blessed beyond words to live in this place with this natural wonder. And we are responsible for ensuring others who come after us will enjoy and benefit from it as well.
Water Company’s Moves Anger Buyers, Landowners, Local Governments
By Brendan Gibbons
September 19, 2021
September 19, 2021
In 2018, Ronnie Urbanczyk signed a contract to purchase water from Texas Water Supply Co., a Boerne company with access to at least 40 water wells that tap into the drought-sensitive Trinity Aquifer just south of the Bexar County line.
Three years later, Urbanczyk doesn’t want the water anymore, but that won’t stop Texas Water Supply from holding him to the water contract. The impasse could put an end to plans to turn Urbanczyk’s land into a
The conflict is just the latest for Texas Water Supply, whose business tactics have led to complaints from its biggest customer, the San Antonio Water System, over how the company operates its wells. Groundwater experts have also expressed concern about how the company’s planned pumping will affect people who depend on the Trinity Aquifer for home use. Landowners along the company’s planned pipeline route have also faced threats of eminent domain from the company.
Unlike newer wells that supply water to small-lot landowners and housing developments north of San Antonio, Texas Water Supply’s wells come with no limits on how much water the company can pump. That’s because the unregulated wells were drilled before the local groundwater district was established in 2001.
Local water supplies have been under pressure for decades as part of the explosive growth that has put Comal County at the top of lists of fastest-growing regions in the U.S. The boom in development has also led to investors buying up water rights and marketing them to developers in water deals that echo the oil and gas deals that have made many a Texas landowner rich.
Urbanczyk thought the Texas Water Supply wells would be a good bet to supply a 1,640-home subdivision he was planning on roughly 560 acres of his property, Honey Creek Ranch, just outside Bulverde. He and his wife, Terry, have lived there with their children since the late 1990s.
After a battle with neighbors, environmentalists, and cavers intent on protecting Honey Creek Cave and the pristine stream that pours out of the cave, Urbanczyk entertained an offer from the Nature Conservancy and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to buy his land and make it a park. TPWD commissioners approved the funding last month.
But TPWD won’t take the land if it comes with a requirement to buy a whole subdivision’s worth of water, as the contract stipulates.
“Please spread the word that Honey Creek will not become a park unless the … contract can be stopped,” Terry Urbanczyk wrote in an email to potential supporters obtained by the San Antonio Report. “We have tried every way possible to get them to back down or change the contract but they will not.”
Ronnie Urbanczyk declined to be interviewed for this story.
Texas Water Supply President Kevin Meier declined to comment, but a legal filing in a court battle with the City of Boerne over whether Texas Water Supply is adhering to Bulverde’s building ordinances might explain why the company has no interest in dropping the contract.
It has spent “thousands of hours of effort and tens of millions of private dollars” building a water pipeline from its Trinity Aquifer wells to Urbanczyk’s ranch along State Highway 46 in Comal County, the
Tapping Trinity AquiferTexas Water Supply’s business model is to profit off pumping the Trinity Aquifer, a water-bearing limestone rock layer that sweeps through northern Bexar and southern Comal counties. Texas Water Supply’s website says its wells give it access to enough water to supply 200,000 people.
The company has two fields of water wells, speckled across northern Bexar County next to tract housing, undeveloped lots of former ranchland, and alongside the Salado Creek trail. One set of wells lies south of the Army’s Camp Bullis, and another set is scattered on either side of U.S.
“The Texas Hill Country is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, and we’re committed to sustainably supplying water for its population,” the company’s website states. “
Texas Water Supply’s largest customer is SAWS. The arrangement is a holdover from Bexar Met, a troubled water utility that SAWS absorbed nine years ago.
SAWS’ top officials often complain about Texas Water Supply’s unreliability, especially during droughts.
“It’s a very volatile supply that they produce,” said Donovan Burton, a SAWS vice president. “They produce a lot of times when it’s wet, but it’s not as productive in dry times.”
At full production, Texas Water Supply has said it can pump up to 32,000 acre-feet, or 10.4 billion gallons per year. Groundwater experts believe the Trinity Aquifer can’t sustain that amount of pumping.
It far exceeds the 24,856 acre-feet per year that the groundwater district, Trinity Glen Rose Groundwater Conservation District, has said can be pumped without causing unwanted drawdowns in neighboring wells. The district’s territory includes sections of the Trinity Aquifer in northern Bexar County and slivers of Comal and Kendall counties.
“The proposed additional withdrawal now makes it that much more difficult, if not almost impossible, to manage this resource effectively,” wrote George Wissmann, Trinity Glen Rose’s general manager, in a 2017 letter.
COMPANY HAS TIES TO CORRUPT BEXAR MET CONTRACT
Texas Water Supply is the latest incarnation of Water Exploration Co, a limited partnership formed in 1999 by Boerne water marketer and well driller Dean Davenport and unnamed investors. In the late 2000s, Davenport’s company often made the front page of the San Antonio Express-News because of a corruption scandal involving Bexar Metropolitan Water District.
The now-defunct utility that once covered swaths of Bexar County mostly outside Loop 410 awarded a $177 million contract to Water Exploration and waived its sovereign immunity, allowing the company to sue Bexar Met over disputes.
Days after the contract was awarded, Bexar Met’s former spokesman, T.J. Connolly, received $16,000 from Water Exploration. Connolly later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges after taking the money and using it to make campaign contributions to Bexar Met board members.
In 2012, when SAWS took over the struggling Bexar Met, it took over the Water Exploration contract, too. SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said the utility had to take on all of Bexar Met’s assets and liabilities.
“There’s numerous, numerous contracts they had that we either had to just absorb, buy out, or renegotiate,” Puente said. “Some of them were good, but most of them were bad.”
In the case of Water Exploration Co., SAWS officials negotiated contract amendments that require the company to stop pumping when Trinity Aquifer levels drop to a certain threshold. That’s meant to protect nearby landowners and businesses, hundreds of whom rely on private Trinity Aquifer wells for drinking water.
Burton said SAWS negotiated a “floor” into the contract because “they have water quality issues below that level.”
“And then there’s impacts to all the regional neighbors,” Burton continued.
SAWS’ displeasure with Texas Water Supply also stems from the way the company operates its water wells.
“It could be a decent project if they would just run it in the right way and not try to do what they do, which is just trying to sell so much water and pump out so much water all at once,” Burton said.
The contract with SAWS ends in 2027; officials said they do not intend to extend it.
TEXAS WATER SUPPLY IS BORN
The looming end of the SAWS contract could have spelled the end of profitable pumping from the Trinity wells for Water Exploration. Instead, in 2017, Brightstar Capital Partners announced it had chosen to partner with the newest incarnation of the company, Texas Water Supply, which included Davenport’s company and another controlled by Harold “Trip” duPerier III, a Boerne real estate agent who bills himself as “the Texas Landman.”
Brightstar founder and managing partner Andrew Weinberg praised Texas Water Supply in a statement at the time, calling it “an excellent fit with our strategy of investing in closely held businesses where we can apply our capital, technical knowledge, and operating experience to drive growth and value-creation.”
Meier, a Bandera real estate agent who worked with duPerier, replaced Bill Gehrmann as Texas Water Supply’s top official last July. The company now has multiple full-time employees and an office in Boerne.
DuPerier’s real estate website states, “We respect the land and the natural wonders of Texas” and that “the Texas Landman believes in long-term and sustainable services that produce enduring products.”
Ryan Bass, an environmental planner for the City of Boerne who hunts on a private ranch downstream of Urbanczyk’s property, thinks the broader effect of increased pumping from the Trinity Aquifer will be anything but sustainable. The groundwater Texas Water Supply is pumping from northern Bexar County and shipping to southern Comal County “will forever change the landscape,” he said in a Sept. 9 email.
“Not only will there be negative impacts from a natural resource management perspective, but with our state government code restricting a county’s ability to plan and manage growth, we will see overall negative impacts on quality of life and irreversible land use changes throughout this part of the Hill Country,” Bass wrote.
The company’s efforts to complete the pipeline from northern San Antonio to Urbanczyk’s ranch has stalled as it and a partner company await a ruling in a lawsuit with the City of Bulverde over whether the company’s construction work is violating Bulverde’s ordinances regulating tree-cutting.
GAMING EMINENT DOMAIN LAW
Texas Water Supply is building the pipeline through an agreement with South Comal Water Supply Corporation, a nonprofit formed in 2016.
For-profit water companies don’t have the authority of eminent domain, a power that governments typically exercise to acquire land from unwilling sellers. Under Texas law, however, nonprofit water supply corporations do.
“I think [Texas Water Supply] maybe figured out an end-around,” by partnering with Comal WSC, said Carly Barton, an attorney with Braun and Gresham, a Dripping Springs firm that often represents landowners fighting eminent domain lawsuits.
A legal filing from Texas Water Supply states the company has “entered into various agreements with South Comal WSC involving the production, transportation, and provision of wholesale water in northern Bexar, Comal, and Kendall counties and surrounding areas.”
Sure enough, landowners along the companies’ desired pipeline route have been are facing eminent domain threats from the nonprofit.
That includes Lynn Graham, whose former ranch land in northern San Antonio has been in her family for generations. The former cattle ranchers divided the property among their children, and Graham ended up with the roughly 37 acres where she and her husband live along Blanco Road.
In 2019, Graham first heard from surveyors representing South Comal WSC wanting to route the pipeline over her land. Threats of eminent domain soon followed.
Graham shared an email thread with the San Antonio Report that shows how in August, Graham’s lawyer was discussing the property acquisition in an email thread directly with Texas Water employees, including Meier and general manager Rex Walker.
“I have never physically met a South Comal Water Supply person,” Graham said. “Even the signature on the contract is just a line, and there’s no printed name.”
Deciding her chances were better outside of court than in, Graham agreed to sell an acre and a half of her land. She hasn’t gotten paid yet. She said she’d say no to the money if Texas Water Supply would let her out of the contract.
“The only reason the land got sold is because of [the threat of] eminent domain,” Graham said.
It’s not clear that South Comal WSC has actually exercised eminent domain by taking any landowners to court yet. As of 2020, no cases had been filed, according to the most recent annual report from the Texas Comptroller. A search of court records in Comal and Bexar counties also showed no results.
Nonprofit water supply corporations may have eminent domain authority, but they’re also typically bound by Texas open records laws. However, attempts by Barton to learn more about the connection between South Comal Water Supply and Texas Water Supply have been blocked by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
On May 20, Barton filed a request seeking “documents and correspondence” regarding the two companies’ relationship and the pipeline route from Bexar County northward.
South Comal appealed the request to the Attorney General’s office. In an Aug. 2 opinion, Assistant Attorney General Emily Kunst sided with the pipeline company, blocking the release of the records.
Kunst agreed with the company’s assertion — while it may be a nonprofit water supply company that would fall under Texas open records law, it doesn’t have any customers yet.
“You explain the corporation was formed ‘to provide water service someday, [but] it does not actually do so currently nor has it constructed any pipeline to serve this purpose,’” Kust wrote, adding that the company also isn’t currently exempt from property taxes.
“We, therefore, conclude the corporation is not a governmental body under the [Public Information] Act at this time,” Kunst’s opinion states.
What bothers Graham most is that Texas law allows essentially allows a private corporation to force a private landowner to sell their property.
“I will do anything in that world somehow to hold them accountable for using a power of condemnation in a private setting,” Graham said. “I just am so pissed off about that.”
By Keith Schneider, Circle of Blue
After the pandemic, soaring population growth, development will again challenge planning and water supply.
WIMBERLEY, Texas – Among the famed springs that distinguish the Texas Hill Country as a region of crystal-clear water and iconic swimming holes, Jacob’s Well stands out. The spring’s water source is rain that falls on the thin soils of Hays County and filters through porous limestone before filling a network of deep, ancient caves.
The water rises back to the surface from a hole, about 12 feet across, in the bottom of Cypress Creek. The round opening is so blue, so shimmering, that viewed from the top of a nearby limestone cliff it looks like an eye.
Unblinking as it emerges from the darkness, the water forms an intent gaze that appears capable of seeing the opposing moods of the Hill Country: the
calming influence of ample water supply in wet seasons, and surging alarm during drought.
When it’s wet in Hays and the 16 other counties that form the Hill Country, Jacob’s Well pours about 900 gallons a minute into Cypress Creek, more than enough to fill the Blue Pool downstream that is a summertime recreational asset in this town of 3,000 residents. In wet years, ample rainfall means that the various circumstances of economic development — population growth, land use changes and water supply — are like soft breezes, licks of wind that are not terribly distracting.
The waters that feed the springs that sustain our rivers tomorrow are underground today. These natural aquifers are the water banks that supply our cities, farms, fish and wildlife, providing more than 55 percent of our water supply. There is no more important resource for us to protect and manage wisely. Between us, we can ensure our water needs are met for all of our tomorrows.
Simply put, groundwater is water that is found beneath the surface of the earth. The aquifers which store groundwater are often compared to underground reservoirs; they are recharged by water percolating down from the surface and release water through springs.
According to the Texas Water Development Board, water from aquifers or groundwater provides over 55 percent of the state’s water supply. A vast majority of the groundwater (nearly 80 percent) is used to irrigate crops. Cities such as San Antonio, El Paso, Houston and Amarillo also depend, to varying degrees, on groundwater to supply homes, businesses and industries. Many rural Texans also rely on groundwater from individual wells.
Aquifers support springs that provide the majority of the water to our most beloved rivers, including the Guadalupe, San Marcos, Frio, San Antonio, Nueces and Llano, and they also sustain Austin’s Barton Springs Pool, and other popular Texas swimming holes. Many of these springs are also home to unique and often endangered animals and plants.
As pressure on our state’s limited water resource continues to grow, Texas must ensure that our groundwater resources are managed wisely in order to protect our vital aquifers and springs. In some parts of the state, groundwater is being used much more quickly than it is being replenished.
For example, the massive Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle, which provides the majority of groundwater supplies in Texas, is being pumped at a rate six times greater than the recharge rate. Likewise, the city of Houston has been seriously impacted by groundwater pumping that has resulted in significant land subsidence. The sinking land levels have increased the frequency of flooding and have caused extensive damage to homes, roadways and other critical infrastructure costing billions of dollars.
It is imperative that moving forward, we manage these precious resources more sustainably.
March 22, 2019
Most Texans don’t worry about being left behind without access to clean, affordable drinking water – after all, it never fails to fill our sinks, showers and hoses. But in a growing, drought-prone state that is ground zero for climate change, making sure that we’ll always continue to have fresh water for all is a concern that we at the Texas Living Waters Project wrestle
Water scarcity would impact the lives of each and every Texan – but in particular, our changing water landscape threatens low- and moderate-income water rate payers who must subsidize wasteful water practices from higher-income residents, businesses and industrial users; rural communities whose groundwater supplies are encroached upon by rapidly growing urban centers; and the fish and wildlife, as well as the people whose livelihoods depend on them, that need plentiful fresh water flowing through our rivers and into our bays.
March 22 is World Water Day. Building a future with fresh water for all is no easy task, and there is no single solution. However, we have identified seven strategies that are a strong starting place for addressing this challenge in the Lone Star State:
1. REDUCING DEMAND — Before anything else, communities must engage mightily in water conservation. Using less water is the only way to truly mitigate water scarcity.
2. COLLABORATING — Texas communities must bring more stakeholders to the table to plan for their water future. Whether or not a community implements a One Water management approach, we can all benefit from thinking more comprehensively about how time-tested strategies like stormwater collection can be used alongside of innovations that utilize new developments, parks and community spaces to manage water more efficiently and effectively.
3. EMBRACING INNOVATION — Communities must be willing to think beyond traditional approaches to embrace and incentivize the adoption of newer, more innovative solutions. Nature-based approaches to development and land restoration have incredible benefits for communities, including preparing them to be more resilient when faced with both droughts and storms.
4. THINKING BIG PICTURE — Communities must remember that when the Texas environment suffers, so do we. Water supply strategies must be
implemented responsibly, in a way that allows enough fresh water to flow into rivers and all the way to Texas bays.
5. PLANNING FOR DROUGHT — Community drought management protocols typically kick in when water supplies drop to a certain level or water treatment facilities begin to reach capacity – but often, this ignores earlier signs of real drought. Instead of waiting for supplies to stretch thin, our communities should develop multi-faceted drought response plans that also consider whether the region is in a climatic drought. By doing so, communities can become more nimble and proactive in stretching water supplies in the face of drought.
6. DIVERSIFY — No strategy is sufficient or reliable on its own; Texas communities must stay flexible and resilient by investing in a diverse mix of strategies. By implementing a host of smaller-scale strategies, communities may even be able to avoid larger, more destructive water supply projects.
7. REMAINING DILIGENT — Technology has been, and will continue to be, a boon for water conservation and supply. Still, as new technologies become available, communities must continue to fully evaluate strategies to ensure they are the right fit for them and the environment. Water utilities should invest in research and development and be willing to test and give feedback on new strategies.
These recommendations are excerpted from Best Bets for Texas Water, a guidebook to evaluating water supply and management strategies for Texas’ water future.
Water Rights Success Story to Preserve & Protect
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When looming development threatened an idyllic slice of the Texas Hill Country known as the Pedernales Falls River Corridor, a group of like-minded neighbors took action to preserve the rare riverside beauty, habitat and history of the corridor, not only for themselves, but for future generations. These landowners used conservation easements to protect their property forever, and are encouraging other property owners along the corridor to do so as well.
Texas Stormwater Score Card 2020
Water is a part of life, and our waterways are a part of what makes Texas special. But, runoff pollution threatens our favorite swimming holes, our drinking water, our pets, and wildlife. When stormwater runs off roofs, roads, parking lots, and sidewalks, it gathers toxic chemicals, excess nutrients, trash, and other forms of pollution. Traditional concrete channel infrastructure compounds the problem: it concentrates pollutants and directs the dirty water directly into local streams. To address the issue Texas municipalities are turning to nature-based infrastructure. Rain gardens, green roofs, the conservation of natural spaces, and other techniques can reduce runoff pollution by up to 90%.
The Texas Stormwater Scorecard evaluates the stormwater management policies of local governments across Texas to see how well they support the use of nature-based infrastructure.
San Antonio's Edwards Aquifer Protection Program
Read a review and analysis of San Antonio's Edwards Aquifer Protection Program. The city of San Antonio has effectively educated the public on the value of this sales tax funded measure, even though some justification of its premises, such as inevitable development in western counties, remains subjective.
June 27, 2018
June 27, 2018
It simply means considering all water—whether groundwater, surface water, rainfall, stormwater, drinking water, wastewater, or even new sources such as air conditioning condensate—as part of the complete water balance. OneFor centuries, the Texas Hill Country has been a region defined by its water resources. Early European settlers traced the paths of the San Antonio, Nueces, Guadalupe, and Colorado Rivers, following their rocky beds, spring-fed tributaries, and shallow draws, no doubt noting every seep and spring along the way.
Before the Europeans, numerous tribes of indigenous peoples hunted, gathered, and fished along these same creeks and rivers. Evidence of their preference for the rivers and the spring sites of the Hill Country is easy to read in the archeology of burned rock middens, ancient campsites, and remnant arrowheads.
Livelihoods in the early days of European settlement of the Hill Country were built and lost on the fortunes of wet years and dry. Every good rancher knew the carrying capacity of their land and how to manage livestock levels to maintain soil moisture.
Not a drop was wasted. It’s easy to appreciate the value of water when you have to carry it, one bucket at a time, from the well, spring, creek, or river out back.
Today’s water story in the Texas Hill Country, however, is much different. Would our forefathers recognize our relationship with water today? In as little as four or five generations—since the era of our grandmothers’ mothers and grandmothers—we have lost that deep and abiding connection to water—where it originates—and its value to our lives.
The advent of well drilling technology and major pipeline infrastructure has opened otherwise water-constrained areas for development. We now dump upwards of a third of our clean, treated municipal drinking water onto our lawns, golf courses, and gardens statewide, and closer to 50 percent in some communities.
Over-pumping from limited Hill Country aquifers threatens the spring flow that sustains our most iconic rivers and swimming holes. In Hays County, two landowner-developers are seeking permits to pump a combined 1.2 billion gallons per year from the Trinity Aquifer. We know that this part of the aquifer provides flow to the San Marcos River, the Blanco River, tributary creeks, Jacob’s Well, and thousands of private water wells. The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District estimates that the level of pumping requested may completely de-water the Cow Creek (Middle Trinity) Aquifer within seven years—the very same water on which many Hays County residents depend as their sole source.
We also see growing threats to the water quality in our Hill Country creeks. Booming development yields increased impervious cover and additional runoff. More and more often, developers are seeking permits to dump treated wastewater effluent into dry or ephemeral creeks. While some Hill Country rivers can handle the nutrient loading from treated wastewater discharge (and many Texas rivers depend on it for their baseflow), many of our pristine creeks with little or low flow simply cannot manage the treated wastewater input. Often this results in algal blooms, nutrient loading that destroys the natural aquatic food chain, and diminishes water quality making our waterways unswimmable, undrinkable, and off-limits for
More than 1,500 miles of Hill Country Creeks, rivers and streams are listed as impaired.
As we look to add three to five million additional residents to the 17 counties of the Hill Country by 2050, how will we ensure water quantity and quality to sustain the homes, businesses, and quality of life that defines this region of Texas?
THE SOLUTION IS A MINDSET CHANGE
One Water is a term that refers to the holistic approach to water management, although it's nothing new when we consider the history of our predecessor’s relationship to water resources. Water poses the question, “How can we more holistically manage these resources for the benefit of humans, the environment, the economy, and our quality of life?” It is the kind of question that we at the Hill Country Alliance ask every day.
The beauty of One Water is that it finds solutions not only by looking at our demand for water but, importantly, by generating new supplies of water.
Stormwater is no longer a nuisance to be shunted away through concrete culverts as quickly as possible—it is something to be stored in rainwater gardens, bioswales, and cisterns. Air conditioning condensate and grey water can be used to flush toilets and to keep gardens lush in times of drought. By switching to distributed infrastructure models, we can put water collection, treatment, and wastewater treatment closer to the source of where it is generated and used.
The adoption of a One Water approach will take the work of more than just nonprofits like the Hill Country Alliance. Most importantly, it will require citizens and community members to demand a long-term approach to water planning. It will demand innovation from engineering firms, builders, and designers exploring more nonconventional solutions. It will take the work (and vision) of city policymakers and water utility managers to invest in infrastructure changes that will have long-term payouts.
RURAL AND URBAN PARTNERSHIPS
Ultimately, the future of the rapidly urbanizing communities of the Hill Country—including three of the top 10 fastest growing counties in the nation—will depend on the continued stewardship of the rural residents of the area.
The vast majority of the water we drink, swim in and enjoy all along the central IH35 corridor begins as rainfall on the lands of the Hill Country. The stewards of those rural lands—the ranchers, farmers, and landowners—are doing their part to ensure long-term water supplies for Austin and San Antonio. A new landowner coalition in the Hill Country has formed to learn more about the drivers of spring flow and aquifer health in order to keep Hill Country creeks full of water, even in times of drought. We would all do well to pay attention to their findings and seek opportunities to support those stewardship efforts whenever we can.
In the same vein, the future of our rural Hill Country will depend on the quick adoption of a One Water approach within the rapidly developing urban core. Let’s ask developers to bring forward-thinking ideas to the table on how they’ll ensure responsible water management for new construction. Let’s demand our cities take a more nuanced approach to water management. Let’s look to our state legislature to see how we can remove barriers to innovation in water management.
Water is THE sustaining element behind the beauty, quality of life, and economic vitality of the Hill Country. One Water is the best way to ensure the continued prosperity of our region for future generations.
Katherine Romans is the executive director of the Hill Country Alliance, a nonprofit focused on protecting the water, land, communities and night skies of the Texas Hill Country. She has more than a decade of nonprofit and legislative experience in natural resource issues, and has been working on issues of growth and conservation with the Hill Country Alliance for five years. Katherine holds a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Overruling the Rule of Capture: What Can Texas Learn From 10 Other States Groundwater Law Updates?
By Gabriel Collins, J.D.
Texas groundwater common law is fundamentally based on principles developed in ancient Rome more than a millennium ago.1 It has also been nearly 120 years since the state adopted the “rule of capture,” which, as described by the Texas Supreme Court “essentially allows, with some limited exceptions, a landowner to pump as much groundwater as the landowner chooses, without liability to neighbors who claim that the pumping has depleted their wells.”2
Since that landmark decision, Texas has grown into one of the largest economies and groundwater users in the world. Long-term water security is a necessary precondition for achieving another prosperous Texas century. Accordingly, the state acutely needs a common law system that can balance world-scale agricultural activity, industrial development, and urban growth while also protecting private property rights.
This analysis aims to provide a foundation for such discussions. It draws upon dozens of judicial and legislative decisions taken in 10 other American states that, at various points in the past 150 years, have transitioned from the rule of capture to another groundwater common law doctrine. Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Oklahoma offer a blend of unique and cross-jurisdictional insights that can provide an informed basis for policymakers in Texas, should they choose to update the state’s groundwater common law. In this group of 10 states, Ohio and Michigan offer especially relevant examples, as each adopted groundwater law doctrines that emphasize equitable balancing between competing uses while still respecting water owners’ property rights.