The 1950s drought of record was so catastrophic, one Texas water official described it as “the most costly and one of the most devastating droughts in 600 years.” A “billion-dollar cure” was needed for the state to recover.
On August 17, 1956, historic record low of 612.5 feet was reported at the J-17 index well in San Antonio of the Edwards Aquifer. This drought not only ignited the modern era of water planning in Texas, it created the need for regulation of the aquifer. In 1959, the Texas Legislature created the Edwards Underground Water District to “conserve, preserve and protect” the Edwards Aquifer; however, it was not afforded any regulatory powers.
In May the Sierra Club files a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), citing negligence to provide the necessary protection required by the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit seeks to require the USFWS to ensure minimum springflows from the Edwards Aquifer fed Comal and San Marcos springs to protect endangered species.
U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton issues a ruling in the Sierra Club lawsuit in favor of the plaintiff and orders that: springflow must be maintained; the Texas Water Commission must submit a plan to the court by March 1, 1993, to assure that Comal and San Marcos springs will not drop below jeopardy levels; the USFWS must develop springflow thresholds for “take” and “jeopardy” at Comal and San Marcos springs by mid-March; and the Texas State Legislature must put into place a regulatory system to limit withdrawals from the Edwards Aquifer by May 31 or he will allow the plaintiffs to seek additional relief. The Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) is created May 30 by the passage of Senate Bill Number 1477 (“EAA Act” or “the Act”) which was scheduled to become effective on September 1. The bill established a nine-member appointed board and abolished the Edwards Underground Water District and its 12-member elected body. The EAA Act was unique in that it required comprehensive regulation to protect the water rights of permit holders and to preserve the aquifer for all those that depended upon it. However, implementation of the EAA Act was put on hold by the U.S. Department of Justice, which ruled that it violated the Voting Rights Act.
House Bill Number 3189 is signed into law, revising the governance portion of the EAA Act to comply with the Voting Rights Act by having an elected board. To begin managing the aquifer, the bill creates a 15-member temporary board which would ultimately transition to a 17-member permanent board, with 15 of those members elected from single-member districts and two appointed members. The U.S. Department of Justice pre-clears the state legislation, effectively clearing the way for the EAA to begin operation on September 1. The Medina County Groundwater Conservation District and others file suit in district court on August 23 challenging the constitutionality of the EAA Act. State District Judge Mickey Pennington rules that the law creating the EAA is unconstitutional stating that the legislation to regulate pumping violates landowners’ property rights, impairs their ability to honor contracts, is applied unequally and is illegally retroactive. The case is ultimately appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
The EAA becomes fully operational on June 28, when the Texas Supreme Court unanimously overturns the district court ruling finding that the EAA Act is constitutional. During the summer, Texas experiences a severe drought. Many municipal water purveyors do not have adequate supplies for their customers. The first election for the EAA Board of Directors is held on November 5. The first 15 elected EAA directors and two newly-appointed directors receive the oath of office and are seated as members of the board on December 10. The EAA Board of Directors holds its first meeting. Mike Beldon is elected chairman. December 30 is the deadline to file an application for an Initial Regular Permit (IRP) and Declaration of Historical Use.
The EAA board approves the first Aquifer Management Fees (AMF) on June 10 with a rate of $11 per acre-foot for municipal and industrial users and $2 per acre-foot for irrigators.
The EAA adopts the Groundwater Management Plan required by all underground water conservation districts and approved by the Texas Water Development Board every five years, on the plan’s anniversary.
EAA adopts emergency rules for permits and drought management.
The first IRP was issued January 9 to the Stein family in Medina County for 224 acre-feet of groundwater permitted for irrigation use.
On October 8, the EAA adopts rules that prohibit any new underground fuel storage tanks on the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone to protect water quality. New Critical Period Management (CPM) rules are also adopted.
In March, the EAA submits a partially completed draft of a plan to protect the threatened and endangered species of the Edwards Aquifer and their habitat to the USFWS for comment.
In February, an informal stakeholder meeting is held to begin discussions of a Recovery Implementation Program. In May, the Texas Legislature adopts Senate Bill No. 3, an omnibus water bill that, among other things, amends the EAA Act. SB3 raises the region’s pumping cap from 450,000 to 572,000 acre-feet per year in an acknowledgement of historical aquifer users’ withdrawal rights; places a critical period management plan into statute; and creates an Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP) as a stakeholder-driven process to identify long-term recommendations for protecting the endangered species with the goal of securing an incidental take permit from USFWS.
EARIP deliberations occur at least monthly with work products and processes including:
- Creation of an expert science committee
- Creation of a recharge feasibility committee to consider new/enhanced recharge facilities;
- Consideration of whether to create a separate San Marcos pool
- A study on the necessity of maintaining minimum springflows
- Determining the appropriate short-term, mid-range, and long-term average springflow requirements
- A study on San Marcos trigger levels for drought restrictions
- Numerous model runs conducted to determine if springflow goals could be achieved through drought restrictions alone
- Various engineered solutions were also investigated
- Determination of Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) as the appropriate instrument to achieve Endangered Species Act compliance
- Created list of mitigation measures and estimated expenses for the 15-year term of HCP; and
- Developed governance structure of the HCP and appropriate binding documents
On January 5, the HCP is submitted to the USFWS by EARIP partners.
The USFWS issues Incidental Take Permit (ITP) on March 19. The 15-year ITP enables the EAA, SAWS, the City of New Braunfels, the City of San Marcos and Texas State University (the applicants) to restore and enhance habitats for eight threatened and endangered species while simultaneously implementing water conservation measures that will ensure freshwater flows that support both native wildlife and the area’s regional economy, including Stage V CPM. Additionally, two of the springflow protection measures — Voluntary Irrigation Suspension Program Option (VISPO) and Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) leasing — begin implementation.
The Edwards Aquifer Conservancy is created June 3 to support and benefit the work of the Edwards Aquifer Authority, including the establishment of programs and practices that protect habitat and species, sustain agricultural practices, promote water conservation and support the development of water management solutions within the Edwards Aquifer region. The VISPO program exceeds its enrollment goal of 40,000 acre-feet. The ASR leasing program struggles for participation.
All VISPO participants (40,921 acre-feet) are required to suspend their enrolled water. The EAA assumes responsibility for the ASR leasing program. Leasing rates and terms are modified, rainfall is abundant through June and enrollment increases dramatically.
ASR leasing enrollment increases to more than 33,000 acre-feet, resulting in cumulative storage of nearly 51,000 acre-feet.