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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.

Sixty feet below the shimmering surface of Jacob's Well, an artesian spring that for thousands of years has pulsed iridescent blue-green water from the Trinity Aquifer to the surface, a sophisticated instrument measures the spring's vital signs. The results are beamed almost instantaneously to the Internet.

These days the gauge detects only the thinnest of pulses.

On a hot April afternoon, David Baker, an artist turned conservationist, stands on the limestone lip gazing down into Jacob's Well. Earlier, Baker had checked the spring flow: an anemic five gallons per second. "At that point, the spring has basically stopped flowing," he says.

Old-timers recall -- and spotty historical data confirm -- that the spring used to have enough of a head to jet swimmers back to the surface after they cannonballed in. Today the pulse is barely a dying man's heartbeat. In 2000, Jacob's Well stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history.

Its source sapped, Cypress Creek came to a trickle in Wimberley, and the state added it to a list of streams with impaired water quality. "I think it was a big wake-up call for the community," Baker says. "If the well is the canary in the coal mine for the aquifer, then the canary was choking and about dead."

The spring ceased flowing again in October 2008. As this story went to press, it appeared Jacob's Well had gone to zero a third time.

The cessations confirm what water experts have been warning: that Jacob's Well is under immense stress from a development boom over the Trinity Aquifer, the primary source of water for much of the Hill Country.

The trouble is hardly limited to Jacob's Well or the Hill Country. Groundwater scarcity is a looming crisis across Texas. Because of drought, overpumping, and the loss of natural recharge, state water planners estimate that groundwater available for pumping will decrease 22 percent by 2060. The state's laissez-faire water laws and cumbersome regulatory apparatus have done little to help.

Conservationists see bad omens in what's happening to Jacob's Well and the Trinity Aquifer. Water is particularly fragile in the Hill Country, designated by the state in 1990 as a priority groundwater management area. In no other region of the state, perhaps, are groundwater and surface water so closely intertwined. The science is clear: If the aquifers decline, they take the springs, seeps, streams, rivers, and lakes with them.

"By continuing to increase our use of groundwater, we cut off the lifeblood of the Hill Country," says Laura Marbury, a water policy specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund of Texas. "We're trading off increased development for the flow of the creeks and rivers out there. And payback will be harsh."

Jacob's Well is tucked in an out-of-the-way corner of a semideveloped subdivision near the Hill Country burg of Wimberley, a one-time backwater of cedar-choppers and hardscrabble ranchers that's now giving way to suburbanization. No signs mark its location. I attended Wimberley High School for four years, visiting Jacob's Well a handful of times, and still had a hard time finding it. As a sort of omphalos of the region, Jacob's Well is not so much forgotten as obscured.

Its importance is undeniable, though. Locally, the spring provides the bulk of flow for Cypress Creek, an exquisite, bald cypress-lined stream that forms Blue Hole, one of the state's top swimming holes. It was saved from residential development by the village of Wimberley and a local philanthropist in 2003.

"Jacob's Well is Cypress Creek," Baker says.

Cypress Creek, in turn, feeds the Blanco River -- a shallow, flash-flood-prone stream with a fluted limestone bottom and majestic white bluffs flanking mostly undeveloped ranch land. During the drought of record in the '50s, Jacob's Well kept the Blanco from drying up below Wimberley. The Blanco flows into the San Marcos River, which itself meets the Guadalupe River near Gonzales and rolls down to San Antonio Bay.

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