2021 Texas Groundwater Summit

Our Water Matters

 TEXAS –– Another successful Texas Groundwater Summit wrapped up at the end of last week in San Antonio. The event, which has been held every year since 2011, is organized by the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts and attracts hundreds of groundwater professionals, scientists, lawmakers, attorneys, consultants and vendors from across the state. 

 This year’s summit included a fascinating look at aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) projects in Texas. ASR is a human-induced process or a natural process enhanced by humans to convey water underground. This usually involves the injection of water from the surface into a well leading to an aquifer below the surface, where the water can be stored and recovered in times of need. ASR has a lot of benefits because the water is stored underground (rather than in reservoirs) so it doesn’t evaporate and is less likely to be contaminated. Also, there is no need to condemn someone’s land for a reservoir, and recovering the injected water is usually fairly straightforward. There are currently three such projects in Texas: one was built in El Paso in 1985 to inject recycled water, a second was developed in Kerrville for the Upper Guadalupe River Authority in 1995, and the third one was completed by the San Antonio Water System in south Bexar County in 2004. ASR could be a future solution for the Big Bend region, where water tends to fall profusely during major rain events. Instead of allowing this water to run off or stand somewhere and evaporate, it could be captured and stored underground.

 Another exciting presentation at the Groundwater Summit involved the work of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in the Balmorhea springs complex. Although scientists have been studying these springs for decades, each spring’s source area and the interconnections among the springs have remained poorly understood. As demand for water in the area continues to increase at unprecedented rates due to oil and gas exploration, there is an urgent need for a better understanding of these source areas in order to eventually enable smarter decisions about where to pump groundwater. With funding from the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, SwRI scientists Ron Green and Rebecca Nunu collected water samples from all six major springs in the area: San Solomon (which feeds the pool at the state park), Phantom Lake, Giffin, Saragosa, West Sandia, and East Sandia. By identifying distinguishing features in the isotopes and chemical signatures of these waters, the scientists were able to solve one of the mysteries that has evaded past research. They definitively determined that the springs are not all connected. It turns out that San Solomon, Phantom Lake, and Giffin springs form one group that is supplied from the same source. East and West Sandia springs are a separate system supplied from a different source. And Saragosa Spring appears to be a shallow seepage spring supplied mostly by rainfall. Further research will involve more sampling to the west and southwest of Balmorhea to continue tracing these distinct sources based on the isotopes and chemical signatures revealed in the SwRI study.

 The Texas Groundwater Summit also included a presentation on the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) and how it relates to Texas water. The federal government has already disbursed billions of dollars in ARPA funds (also referred to as “COVID funds”) to state, county and city governments throughout the country. But many officials are still unclear about what these funds can be spent on. Carlos Rubinstein of RSAH2O, an environmental regulatory and compliance consulting firm in Austin, recommends taking a flexible approach based on the wording of the act. According to Rubinstein, the law gives local governments and entities a lot of leeway in how they allocate ARPA funds to boost “resilience” among “underserved communities,” such as our unincorporated areas, and improve “readiness” in the face of natural disasters, such as drought, floods and wildfires. Projects such as aquifer storage and recovery as well as routine groundwater monitoring are just a few of the tools that promote this kind of resilience and readiness. County and city leaders should be encouraged to allocate ARPA funds to these efforts.

 Stay tuned for future issues of Our Water Matters where I’ll be covering these topics in greater depth to help improve your understanding of water, research and policy.