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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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"It's like trying to save the buffalo from extinction by selling buffalo hides," Hollon says.

In 2003, Hays voters "confirmed" the district by a 2-1 margin and elected a slate of directors, including Hollon, that was strongly pro-regulation. None of the anti-district candidates, backed by the Hays County Republican Party, won a seat. The group had little power, but that didn't stop it from setting an ambitious goal: preserving as much water for springs and streams as possible. When directors ran the numbers, it became clear that the aquifer was already tapped out.

According to groundwater availability models, the aquifer in western Hays County can sustainably yield about 3,400 acre-feet a year without unduly straining springs and streams. In 2008, pumping topped 4,600 acre-feet.

"We're operating at what we think the aquifer can yield and still maintain spring flow," says Hollon.

As Hollon and the other water managers stand by idly, the pumps proliferate. About 150 to 300 new wells are drilled in western Hays every year. The district has also identified at least 1,500 small tracts of land that are yet to be built on.

"I know enough about exponential numbers to be scared," Hollon says.

This summer will be a good test of the aquifer's limits. The Trinity is approaching the end of the rainfall boost it received in 2007, and the current drought -- severe, but not as prolonged as previous one -- may well deepen.

Absent the ability to set limits on production and require sufficient spacing between wells, sustainability activists are gloomy. As developments keep sprawling across Hays County, the streams will go dry with "increased frequency," says Andrew Backus, the district president and retired hydrogeologist who lives in Driftwood. "It will be exceptional when they actually flow."

Why, then, has Rep. Patrick Rose, the Democrat who beat Rick Green in a squeaker of a race in 2002, been reluctant to give the groundwater district greater power to regulate and possibly save the Trinity Aquifer? That question nags conservationists in Hays County. For three sessions, the district and its backers have asked Rose to file a bill granting full regulatory powers. Rose has steadfastly declined, saying that he doesn't think the district should have taxation powers and that the issue is divisive. Four months into this legislative session, he offered a "compromise" bill that allowed the district to collect fees for two years to help pay for a groundwater sustainability study -- what Hollon compares to "throwing some candy to kids in the backseat to quiet them on a long trip." In late April, the district board voted to say "thanks, but no thanks" to the proposal.

Miffed, Rose yanked the bill a few days later.

"Why are the legislators throwing us down a dry well?" asks board president Backus. "They're in the process of helping developers get water utility districts, but they're not helping the Hays-Trinity district get powers equivalent to all the surrounding groundwater districts. There's something else going on."

The sense that Rose is protecting development and real estate interests is widespread among the sustainability crowd. "The only reason I can see that Rose and [Sen. Jeff] Wentworth are so reluctant to grant the district the tools it needs to get the job done is they're giving in to the real estate interests who want a weak district," says Jim McMeans, a founder of Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development, a Wimberley-based group that promotes "sensible growth" and has won major concessions from developers. (Wentworth is a San Antonio Republican.)

Rose is a real-estate agent with his parents' own Rose Real Estate in Drippings Springs. From 2004 to 2008, he received nearly $300,000 in campaign contributions from real estate interests and developers, according to the nonprofit watchdog Texans for Public Justice. One of Rose's top donors is Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder who primarily funds Republican candidates.

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