Behind Texas's Looming Crisis: Groundwater Scarcity
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Add water to the mix. The Trinity Aquifer, which is much less rechargeable than the Edwards, provides the vast majority of groundwater for the area. "There's a lot of straws pulling from an aquifer that doesn't have a lot to give," says Ron Fieseler, the coordinator for Groundwater Management Area 9, which covers a swath of the Hill Country.
Geologists say pumping in western Hays has already passed the limit of sustainability. Computer modeling by the Texas Water Development Board predicts water-level declines during a severe drought of between 50 and 100 feet across the Trinity, including portions of Bexar, Travis, Kerr, Hays, Blanco and Bandera counties.
What would that mean? Hays County got a small taste in 2006. Drought, compounded by overpumping, left about 100 homes near Dripping Springs without water and reduced Onion Creek, which flows through Hays County and South Austin into the Colorado River, to a trickle. A report on the '06 drought by Austin hydrologist Raymond Slade warns of the consequences of a far worse drought, which "will cause many more wells to become dry and probably result in many thousands of people in the County to be without water. Nobody knows when this will happen but it is likely to occur in the near future." Onion Creek, he concludes, is likely to stay dry except when there's significant runoff from storms.
Given this harsh reality, Baker says people in Hays County will have to decide whether to trade flowing streams and springs for growth. "It's a hard conversation to have because no one wants to have limits to what we do," he says. "But there's a carrying capacity to these systems."
Water watchers are keen to see what happens in western Hays County. It may hold clues to the future of the Hill Country. "Hays is the canary because it's so close to I-35," says Marbury, the EDF policy specialist. Many Hill Country communities are approaching the limits of sustainability, she says, but "Hays is more dire because I personally feel like they've reached the point of no return. Whatever decision they make will be extremely difficult. However, they need to make it soon."
Addressing the water crisis in western Hays County falls to a tiny governmental entity with one full-time employee, five volunteer elected directors, a volunteer geologist, and an $150,000 annual budget. The Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District is one of 96 districts in Texas covering roughly half the state's landmass. The districts are supposed to be all that stands in the way of the rule of capture, the unique Texas law that essentially says you can pump as much water as you like, your neighbor's well or stream be damned. If you can pump it, it's yours.
To combat the inevitable depredations of the rule of capture, most of Texas' groundwater districts can collect taxes, meter wells, set minimum distances between wells, issue permits, and impose pumping limits. The Hays district has few of these powers. The man who wrote the legislation creating the district, former state Rep. Rick Green, an ultraconservative Republican from Dripping Springs who now lectures on the myth of the separation of church and state, designed it that way.
"Rick Green thought God would take care of our water," says Jack Hollon, a retired math teacher and member of the district board who grew up raising Angora sheep on a farm on the Devil's Backbone, near Wimberley.
Green's 1999 legislation exempted agricultural and single-family residential wells in the district from regulation -- 98 percent of an estimated 6,500 wells. The district has some authority over water utilities, which provide about half the water in the district. But developers are taking advantage of the district's generous exceptions by building small, dense developments that require homeowners to provision their own individual, exempt wells. Another perverse provision of the legislation provides that funding for the district primarily comes from a $300 fee on new wells.