Grant awarded to Big Bend Conservation Alliance and local groundwater districts

FAR WEST TEXAS — The Federal Bureau of Reclamation has awarded a WaterSMART Applied Science Grant to the Big Bend Conservation Alliance — in partnership with the groundwater conservation districts of Brewster, Culberson and Presidio Counties. The highly competitive WaterSMART program funds non-federal entities to develop tools and information to support and enhance water management and improve water supply reliability. 

The $48,000 grant will fund 50 percent of a common data management platform that will enable the three districts to centralize data from ongoing monitoring programs, integrate historical data and provide the public with access. The project will also fund a shared data module, so that groundwater districts can form a more holistic picture of the health of shared aquifers that cross county boundaries. According to Summer Webb, general manager of both the Brewster and Culberson counties groundwater conservation districts, “Aquifers don’t recognize political boundaries. Having the ability to look at our shared aquifers more holistically will drastically improve our ability to research, permit and plan for the future health of our aquifers and communities.”

At the time of the application, the groundwater districts in Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties were in the final phase of a five-year cycle to define state-mandated “desired future conditions” for Groundwater Management Area 4. Also known as “DFCs,” desired future conditions constitute agreements among districts concerning acceptable levels of drawdown in shared aquifers over a 50-year period. In reviewing the DFCs for final approval, some in the group had expressed reservations about the quality of the supporting data. Webb observed that, “It’s been difficult to compile reliable datasets across the entire groundwater management area which has made decision-making tough when it comes to shared aquifers.” 

According to Trey Gerfers, Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District Board chairman, “The WaterSMART grant seemed like a perfect fit because our district had already implemented this kind of software with great success. If we could get the rest of the districts in our groundwater management area to implement the same platform, we felt that the quality and utility of the data could be improved substantially.” 

Big Bend Conservation Alliance worked with the three groundwater districts to write the grant and fund the shared data module. “As a former technologist, I’ve seen the transformative effect that systems and shared data can have in operations. We had already seen the benefits with Presidio County leading the way, so we had an excellent local model to take to the neighboring counties,” said Shelley Bernstein, the organization’s executive director. 

The shared data module is being developed so that any groundwater district which is using the same software platform can freely adopt it for a small setup fee, helping make available and promote the benefits of shared data across Texas. Neighboring districts, including Middle Pecos and Reeves County groundwater conservation districts, are currently in the process of adopting the same software, moving the establishment of a common data platform across the entire region much closer to reality. Webb is excited about the new data platform because it “will also provide a much-needed end-user ability to look at the data in a friendly map-view that will help landowners make informed decisions.”

 The implementation of the data management software that this grant provides will also make these districts eligible to become data providers to the National Ground-Water Monitoring Network of the United States Geological Survey, which will unlock hundreds of thousands of dollars in future funding for water quality testing and additional infrastructure, such as monitoring wells. This increased federal funding is also a creative way for groundwater districts, such as Brewster and Presidio, whose budgets are funded almost entirely by county taxes, to fulfill their missions without any additional burden on the local tax base. 

By the end of the next 5-year cycle for defining desired future conditions, Gerfers is confident that the supporting data will be much more robust. “A region-wide system to monitor groundwater quantity and quality is well within reach in the next two to five years. This can only be a positive in providing us with the data we need to conserve and protect the groundwater we all rely on. In an era of so much bad news, it’s an encouraging sign of what’s possible if we work together.”