The Edwards Aquifer & the EAA
By Joe Nick Patoski
The story of water and Texas starts here, some 650 feet below the surface, in San Antonio. That’s the historic average for October of the J-17 well, 658 feet above sea level, the measure that influences everything related to the Edwards Aquifer.
The Edwards is one of the most abundant artesian aquifers in the world. It supplies water to over two million people and thousands of farmers in the region. Spread underneath the land of South Central Texas, the Edwards Aquifer charges the seven largest springs in the state and several major rivers, and is responsible for most of the water fun in Texas. Compared to other aquifers, the Edwards’ karst limestone allows for greater recharge and sustainability than any aquifer in the region. And it’s not just any water. The sweet, clear artesian spring water that comes from the Edwards is some of the best-tasting water anywhere. It is a miracle of our natural world.
The EAA was created by the Texas Legislature in 1993, at the behest of United States District Judge Lucius Bunton. The judge’s ruling earlier that year ordered the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to set minimum spring flow standards for Comal and San Marcos springs, the two largest springs in the southwestern United States. Endangered species that relied on those springs for their survival must be protected. The Texas Legislature reacted to Bunton’s decision by creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority as the regulatory agency overseeing groundwater in the Edwards Aquifer. Pumping limits were written into the law designating the conservation and reclamation district, a first for Texas.
The beginning was rough. Legal challenges and lawsuits from groundwater districts within the Edwards’ purview and from individual property owners claimed new regulations denied farmers west of San Antonio their right to pump as much water as they desired. Uvalde and Medina counties in the western part of the aquifer opted out of the Edwards Aquifer Authority altogether. A catfish farmer named Ronnie Pucek drilled the world’s biggest artesian water well near the Medina River, yielding 45 million gallons a day, as much water as a city of 250,000, with the intent of using it for his Living Waters Artesian Springs Catfish Farm, taking advantage of the rule of capture. A 10-year battle concluded with the purchase of the farm and its water rights by the San Antonio Water System for $9 million.
The creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority fit into a bigger plan sketched out during the 1990s to assure sufficient water supplies for the people of Texas in 2050. Groundwater districts were designated the preferred means of local control by the Texas Legislature, with pumping and exporting limits determined by each district, not the state. Sixteen regional water-planning groups around the state had to come up with a plan for their region that would set goals for water supplies through 2050 while addressing urban and rural interests. The plans were ambitious. But the math didn’t add up. Sixty percent of the 16.1 million-acre feet of water used by humans in Texas in 2008 was groundwater (with 80 percent of that amount used for agricultural irrigation). Yet, between 1995 and 2005, the average levels in the state’s nine major and 21 minor aquifers – Texas’ groundwater supply - had dropped by one-third.
The Ogallala Aquifer, which extends north from the Texas Panhandle into South Dakota and Wyoming, and is responsible for 40 percent of Texas’ water supply, was a poster child of overuse. Since 1950, the Ogallala has been pumped at six times the rate of recharge, effectively, a race to the bottom: use up as much of what is left of the aquifer as is economically useful until it’s gone, as long as one can afford the expense of an electric pump to pull up the harder-to-get-to water. With the increasing presence of brackish water in the Ogallala, many farmers are either switching to the riskier dry land method or quitting farming altogether.
Not surprisingly, the value of water has increased exponentially over the past 20 years while the pursuit of water has intensified. A bottle of water can cost more than a can of oil. Finding, securing, buying and selling water is big business. And for good reason. There is only so much water to go around, with an increasing number of competing interests wanting it. Some of the fastest growing counties in the United States sit atop the Edwards Aquifer, but pumping even more water from the Edwards is no longer an option with EAA oversight.
The Edwards Aquifer is in relatively good health compared to other aquifers, due in no small part to the stewardship of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, its partners and the people who live and work above the aquifer. Various stakeholders with competing interests have somehow managed to agree on enough to assure a rechargeable aquifer and sufficient water supply for the immediate future, despite population growth and the climatological desertification of the region. The City of San Antonio no longer relies one hundred per cent on the Edwards for its municipal supply. But the “eleven hundred springs of the Hill Country” still flow, swift and clear.
The Edwards Aquifer Authority spent its first 20 years growing up, assessing the situation, gathering data, establishing baselines, figuring out how to manage the resource while fighting negative public perception with information. The next 20 years will be just as tough.
The quantity is known. The bigger challenge is maintaining the quality. People keep coming and the emerging private sector water market is generating more competitors seeking more water supplies. Add to those pressures the exponential growth of water recreation, which has earned those businesses and communities a place at the table as stakeholders. The economies of many communities in the Hill Country and along Interstate 35 are pegged to healthy rivers and springs. Schlitterbahn, Hueco Springs, tubing on the Guadalupe and San Marcos rivers, Gruene, Landa Park, the Meadows River Systems Institute at Texas State University, Barton Springs, the Rio Frio, Utopia, Leakey, Concan and the World’s Toughest Boat Race: The Lone Star Water Safari from San Marcos to the Coast, all rely on the Edwards Aquifer. The Edwards nourishes special places such as The Tube Chute on the Comal in New Braunfels; the revived San Pedro Springs in the second oldest park in America, just north of downtown San Antonio; Bracken Cave, the biggest bat cave in the world; natural landmarks such as the Narrows on the Blanco, West Cave Preserve and Hamilton Pool; and special species including the Texas blind salamander and Texas wild rice.
How you can provide sustenance for all that, and still satisfy thirsty, increasingly demanding constituencies is the daunting task the Edwards Aquifer Authority faces.
The question of “How much?” has been pretty well answered. It ain’t easy, but it can be done. The data and the science are known, and more is being learned every day. The numbers have been crunched. The results are impressive: Water is the direct link to the exceptional biodiversity Texas and Texans enjoy, and to the $4.1 billion hunting and fishing economy that thrives from it.
Maintaining that biodiversity while managing the resource and the demands placed upon the resource translates into more responsive customer service, listening more closely to the concerns voiced by those being regulated, devising strategies to endure drought conditions and a drying climate and encouraging more collaboration between the various folks who depend on the Edwards.
The implementation of the Habitat Conservation Plan to protect threatened and endangered species in and around Comal and San Marcos springs, with the EAA, the cities of San Marcos and New Braunfels, the San Antonio Water System, Texas State University, and the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority taking leadership roles, has been a giant step. Measures are now in place responding specifically to Judge Bunton’s directive, ensuring no federal intervention.
Conservation has been incentivized. Irrigators have improved efficiencies. SAWS, the Edwards’ biggest customer, has started securing future water supplies for San Antonio far beyond the Edwards Aquifer.
Stepping up well registration, underwriting an abandoned well closure fund, and developing new conservation strategies are priorities moving to the front burner. Everyday users have changed. Drip irrigation, rainwater catchment, low flush toilets and watering days are part of the everyday conversation. Every drop counts, the public now knows. And every person makes a difference. They are the real reason why San Antonio has become a national leader in water conservation.
Economics, education, and technological advances, it turns out, are as critical as the rules to making it all work. We have come a long way in 20 years. We will have to go even farther in the next 20 years and beyond.
The story of water and Texas continues right here. With wisdom, applied science, hard work, cooperation, and vision, the people living here in San Antonio in 2066 will be able to refer to the Edwards Aquifer as a miracle of their natural world, just as we have been able to do. Who knows? By then, they may even recognize the long hours and hard work put in by the people, the institutions and agencies willing to take on the difficult and complex issue of water. Their efforts – your efforts - have made all the difference in the world. It’s the one thing all Texans should be able to agree on. Because water is the one thing all Texans cannot live without.