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Experts talk water, or lack thereof, in aquifers

Texas Water Program Director Vanessa Puig-Williams was the moderator for the panel The panel was composed of Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District General Manager Charlie Flatten, Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District General Manager Tim Loftus and Edwards Aquifer Authority General Manager Roland Ruiz.
Daily Record photo by Shannon West

Experts talk water, or lack thereof, in aquifers

Sunday, April 7, 2024

This is the first of a two part series on the Groundwater Symposium that occurred at Texas State University on April 2 bringing together the area's groundwater conservation district leaders.

With the current drought and the level of eco-anxiety amongst the public at an all time high, groundwater, particularly the protection of local aquifers, is a hot topic of conversation. Texas State University’s Office of Sustainability and Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, along with the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, hosted a Groundwater Symposium on April 2 at the LBJ Student Center to discuss hydrogeology, management and conservation of local aquifers.

During the event, a panel was moderated by Texas Water Program Director Vanessa Puig-Williams and was composed of Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District General Manager Charlie Flatten, Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District General Manager Tim Loftus and Edwards Aquifer Authority General Manager Roland Ruiz.

Ruiz said the Edwards Aquifer Authority was created out of “a whole lot of conflict” around how to manage the Edwards Aquifer, which was the sole source of groundwater for south central Texas as long as it's been inhabited.

“In the 1980s, and around that time frame, as growth continued to come to this area, there was always a growing concern about managing the resource and how best to do it. And the concern was that this system is interconnected from the Hill Country with the recharge zone all the way down to the coast, because there’s water that emanates from this aquifer to provide flows into the Comal and the San Marcos River and flow into the Guadalupe River. So it’s really the epitome of a shared resource that has a nexus from groundwater to surface water,” Ruiz said. “The challenge for managing the system, however, is that in Texas, as you all know, groundwater is treated differently under the law than is surface water. Groundwater belongs to property owners and surface water belongs to the state.”

Ruiz explained the origins of the EAA. He said the Sierra Club realized there was a species living in those interconnected systems that was supposed to be protected under the Native Species Act.

“They sued the federal government, and they claimed that the federal government Department of the Interior National Parks and Wildlife Service was not upholding the law the way that it was intended to,” Ruiz said, adding that this set in motion events that led to the creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act by the state of Texas and thereby the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “It created the regulatory framework by which we were to implement a management scheme to control use of the Edwards [Aquifer] to ensure that there was always continuous minimum spring flows in all of those spring systems. … They did that because of concern that, had the state not done anything, there would be federal intervention because of those native species, and there would be a loss of local, regional control over this most important water resource.”

Ruiz said with the creation of the EAA, there was a “hard cap” put on the amount of water that could be taken out of the aquifer in any given year. It also created a system that defined how permits were to be issued.

“Why the Edwards is managed the way that it is today goes back to the original statute,” Ruiz said. “There are no new permits to be issued, by the way. We have issued all the permits in that cap. The cap is 572,000 acre feet.”

Ruiz said if someone doesn't have a permit or a well, it would need to be purchased from someone that does. As a result of that “the value of water was monetized in really certain terms,” which increased the need to conserve it.

Loftus said in 1987 the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District focused primarily on Barton Springs with a secondary focus on the Edwards Aquifer, which was about six years prior to the formation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority in 1993.

“In 2015, there was another piece of legislation that annexed what’s now called shared territory because, in that part of Hays County, it was already being regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, but the Trinity Aquifer below it was unregulated,” Loftus said. “That’s where we came in just to focus on the Trinity Aquifer there [in Hays County].”

Flatten then explained the interconnectedness of each of these aquifers.

“The Hays Trinity Groundwater District is interesting, because the water that hits the ground in western Hays County contributes to each of those recharging,” Flatten said. “We contribute surface flows as well as underground flows to both the EAA and the Barton Springs District.”

Puig-Williams said there was a spectrum of groundwater management on the panel from the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which has the most regulatory tools allotted from the state, the Barton Springs/ Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, which is a hybrid of the other two, and the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which has the least amount of regulatory tools allotted from the state.

Flatten said that it is true that the HTGCD has few tools at its disposal, but it does have one of the “best” groundwater monitoring systems with 85 wells contributing data. The well monitoring gives information on increase or decrease in groundwater levels.

“We keep those tools really sharp, so we can use them surgically. We spend a lot of time doing grassroots work. We spent a lot of time out in the community talking to folks and helping them understand why it's important to conserve the resource,” Flatten said. “It’s a small office. We don’t have a big staff, but those that we do have are great. … We have the authority to grant permits, and those are only for certain commercial purposes. We do not have any authority to regulate private wells.”

He added that one of the main ways the HTGCD impacts groundwater usage is by developing relationships and appealing to peoples’ better nature.

“The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” Flatten said, adding that the HTGCD “through good, fundamental science created a groundwater management zone, which is a very specific geographic area where we can enforce much tighter rules to ensure spring flow.”

Flatten then discussed the Jacob’s Well Groundwater Management Zone. According to the HTGCD website, increased pumping in the Jacob’s Well Springshed has a direct impact on water wells and springflow. During normal conditions, there is enough water in the aquifer to support both springflow and normal water well pumping. During drought, there is an increase in water well pumping for lawn irrigation, which results in decreased well levels and decreased springflow. The HTGCD created a stakeholder group in order to determine the level of public support for and viability of a Groundwater Management Zone for the protection of groundwater resources in the Wimberley Valley. Those stakeholders developed zone boundaries, pumping cutbacks during drought stage and trigger points at which cutbacks would be enacted.

'That took a lot of collaboration with our neighbors,” Flatten said, adding that the BSEACD and the EAA both participated in the establishment of the Jacob’s Well Groundwater Management Zone. “The level of collaboration between groundwater districts is pretty high.”

Loftus said that the two aquifers managed by the BSEACD “couldn’t be more different from each other.” He said it developed a keen understanding of the relationship between rain and recharge and the flow of Barton Springs in the 90s, which allowed them to maximize the amount of firm yield permits while still protecting spring flows. He said with the addition of two of the Barton Springs species to the Endangered Species List, the BSEACD was able to create a more nuanced permitting process from one permit to five different permits.

“So we’re at a good place with understanding how to manage the aquifer, particularly during drought, so that we can maintain a minimum level of flow to protect the health of those endangered species,” Loftus said. “We’re trying to get to that point [with that level] of scientific understanding of the Trinity Aquifer. … We’re very focused and very busy with a variety of research projects to understand those same kind of relationships, but the Trinity by comparison … is much more complex. We don’t benefit immediately from having endangered species, so it’s challenging us. But we will get to a point where we can evolve I think from one type of permit that we issue for Trinity water to something more nuanced.”

With the evolution of understanding of these aquifers will come the increase in protections of this valuable resource.

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