It’s time to pay attention to the water we cannot see
Texas’ rivers are iconic. But the groundwater that sustains them is invisible.
State law perfectly captures this dichotomy. Naturally flowing water in rivers and streams is owned by the state and held in trust for the public good. That’s because we can see what that water means to us: It provides for our cities, towns, farms, and ranches. We picnic next to it and we float in it with our friends and family. So the state has laws that try to prevent rivers from running dry.
The laws that apply to groundwater in Texas are different and don’t necessarily protect groundwater from drying up. If you own property, you own the groundwater beneath your land, and you have the right to pump as much water as you want in many areas of the state where groundwater is unregulated. Even where groundwater is managed by local groundwater conservation districts, the law allows over pumping to occur, causing groundwater to decline across the state.
This can also cause rivers to decline. That’s because groundwater and surface water are intrinsically connected — nearly a third of the water in Texas’ rivers originates underground. Texas law, unfortunately, doesn’t fully recognize this connection.
Now, the state’s population is booming, and its climate is ever more susceptible to drought, so underground aquifers are increasingly vulnerable to over pumping. That’s a huge risk to farmers, ranchers, big cities, small towns and wildlife. It also threatens the rivers and streams that the state is trying to protect.
Beneath the Surface, a new Environmental Defense Fund report outlining five major groundwater management challenges in Texas, shows that in many places, overstressed aquifers are already affecting life above-ground.
The Devils River in West Texas is considered the state’s most unspoiled and wild river. A huge amount of public and private investment has gone into protecting it. But studies by the Texas Water Development Board show that significant pumping from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, which feeds the Devils River, can affect the river’s surface water flow.
Val Verde County, where the Devils River originates, lacks a groundwater conservation district — a local agency with some authority to limit groundwater pumping. As the Beneath the Surface report notes, local residents and landowners worry that unregulated groundwater pumping will affect their own property rights to groundwater, harm flow to the Devils River and the nearby San Felipe Springs, and even affect water in the Rio Grande that surface water right holders and endangered species all count on.
There’s more. Wimberley, a charming Hill Country town on the banks of Cypress Creek, is home to a beloved spring-fed swimming hole called Jacob’s Well —a vertical cave dropping straight down into the Middle Trinity Aquifer. The well provides about 20% of the Blanco River’s baseflow and 100% of the flow of Cypress Creek.
In 2000, Jacob’s Well stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history. In 2008 and 2009, the well stopped flowing again, and then again in 2011 and 2013. This month, overpumping and a lack of rain has reduced Jacob’s Well to a trickle. The community is trying to save it.
Last year, after a lengthy, science-driven stakeholder engagement process, the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District adopted rules to maintain spring flow from Jacob’s well and to protect rural water supply wells from going dry. The rules create a 39-square-mile management zone that cuts permitted pumping when spring flow drops below a certain level, an indication of declining groundwater levels in the area. It’s a step toward conjunctive management of groundwater and surface water.
It’s also the exception in Texas.
Texas needs a clearer view of how groundwater affects surface water. By letting science guide management decisions at the local and state level, Texas can protect groundwater as well as the communities and ecosystems — and rivers and streams — it supports.
In its interim report, the Texas House Committee on Natural Resources recommended creating an advisory board to develop recommendations for “improving the understanding and management of groundwater and surface interactions in Texas.”
This is a good first step that would spotlight options for creating a badly needed Texas-specific solution to water management — one that preserves the state’s economy, its natural resources, and Texans’ lives and livelihoods.
Puig-Williams is director of Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas Water Program.