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Behind Texas's Looming Crisis: Groundwater Scarcity

Groundwater is threatened by drought, overpumping and the loss of natural recharge. Too bad the state's laissez-faire water laws won't help.

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Conservationists and water experts stress the wondrous interconnectivity of surface and groundwater in Texas, especially in the porous Hill Country. Consider: At certain leaky spots, the upper Blanco disappears underground, slipping into the aquifer via a fault. The river may even follow the fault lines (geologists aren't sure) east to the Cypress Creek watershed, providing flow to Jacob's Well, which in turn pushes water into Cypress Creek and the Blanco River. Downstream, the Blanco River again "loses" water to the aquifer.

Adding to the system's complexity, some of that Trinity water -- about 64,000 acre-feet per year -- moves underground into the Balcones Fault Zone portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the source of the perennial San Marcos Springs. Those springs are the headwaters of the San Marcos River, a main source for the Guadalupe River in times of drought.

Texas water law recognizes very little of this. As a drop of water moves between the ground and the surface, it passes through two different legal spheres. As surface water, it's owned by the state but perhaps allocated, in the form of a water right, to a rancher, farmer, or city. As groundwater, it's the property of the landowner.

Jacob's Well confuses this artificial distinction. The spring is not just a headwater; it's literally a spy hole into the Trinity Aquifer. Divers have mapped the underwater cave over a mile underground, pushing through a series of chambers deep into the limestone Cow Creek formation of the Middle Trinity. Eight have died in the pursuit of the unknown.

"Jacob's Well is the expression of the aquifer on the surface," Baker says. "What it's indicating to us is that the whole system is stressed."

Recent research suggests that Jacob's Well is highly sensitive to pumping, especially in the recharge zone northwest of the springs, an area of small sinkholes (believed to connect to Jacob's Well) and cedar-choked hills that developers are carving into residential lots. The main development is called The Ridge at Wimberley Springs.

"I think we've reached the limit, yet more homes are going in as we speak," Baker says. "And that's the dilemma."

Since founding the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association in 1996, Baker has been fighting to keep developers from chewing up Jacob's Well. At the moment, the watershed association is tied up in a lawsuit with a group that wants to build RiverRock, a "residential resort" -- spa, "lagoon-style" pool, gourmet restaurant -- a few hundred feet from Jacob's Well. RiverRock wants to build a road through the Jacob's Well Preserve. Baker hopes to stop the development altogether, claiming that it would pump 15 million gallons per year, which could have a direct impact on flows at the springs.

Baker is also at loggerheads with Aqua Texas, a for-profit water utility that serves Woodcreek, an incorporated subdivision of 1,500 people just south of Jacob's Well. Last year, almost half the water Aqua Texas pumped from its main well was wasted because of crumbling infrastructure. Worse, when the company turns on the pumps at that same well, the discharge at Jacob's Well drops a corresponding amount.

In 2005, the watershed group scored a victory by consolidating the four parcels of private land that abut the spring. With a $3 million grant from Hays County, the group is creating the Jacob's Well Preserve, a 55-acre natural area that eventually will be open to the public.

This effort will be for naught if something isn't done to manage the Trinity. Hays County is one of the fastest-growing counties in a fast-growing state. In 2000 the population was a little under 100,000; in 2060, it's expected to reach 500,000. In the past few years, the county has been the scene of intense squabbles between anti-sprawl activists, drawn largely from the Wimberley area's large retired population, and pro-growth interests.

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