Our Water Matters

Groundwater sustainability

People and businesses from around the country continue to relocate to Texas. While the factors driving this phenomenon are many, the question we should all be asking ourselves is: Are we ready?

Growth of this magnitude will necessarily entail increased water use. As a result, sustainable water production will be indispensable to sustaining our growing population and economy. And no place will be spared. Even if the Big Bend region does not directly experience the levels of growth seen elsewhere, we will eventually feel the pressure on our water supplies from neighboring cities, such as El Paso and Midland/Odessa. It should also be borne in mind that sustainable management of groundwater will remain vitally important in a region like ours that relies virtually exclusively on aquifers.

A good umbrella term for the sustainable management of our aquifers is “groundwater sustainability,” which the U.S. Geological Survey defines as the “development and use of ground water in a manner that can be maintained for an indefinite time without causing unacceptable environmental, economic, or social consequences.” But according to a recent report by Dr. Robert Mace of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, “Texas currently does not require the sustainable management of the state’s aquifers nor the consideration of sustainable management.” This has led to a situation in which many of the state’s aquifers are being gradually drained over time, with the Ogallala Aquifer in North Texas being the most notorious example.

The statewide picture is bleak. Based on data from the Texas Water Development Board, Mace asserts that Texas is currently producing groundwater from its aquifers at 1.8 times the maximum sustainable production rate. The numbers are a little less dire if we omit the data from the Ogallala Aquifer (which provided 64 percent of all groundwater produced in the state in 2019). But even without the Ogallala, Texas is currently producing groundwater from its aquifers at 0.8 times the maximum sustainable production rate. That rate will continue to grow as the population increases, ultimately leading to the depletion of our aquifers. If state-level agencies, regional water planning groups and local groundwater districts wish to manage aquifers on a sustainable basis, rather than on the basis of eventual depletion, Mace recommends reaching policy decisions based on “sustainable yield” which is “the amount of groundwater that can be produced to achieve groundwater sustainability.”

According to Mace’s report, sustainable yield, which is sometimes referred to also as “safe yield” is ultimately not a physical phenomenon, but “rather, a subjective phenomenon based upon human values.” Mace goes on to point out that “[g]roundwater sustainability, and thus sustainable yield, cannot be determined without a policy process … [and] the policy process needs to include the decision makers [and] … [i]deally stakeholders.” In the Big Bend region, the decision makers are your elected officials and your groundwater districts. The stakeholders are you.

The good news for us is that, with the exception of the West Texas Bolsons (which are being slightly overproduced at 1.1 times the sustainable yield), all of the aquifers in our region, including the Bone Spring-Victorio Peak, Capitan Reef Complex, Marathon, and Rustler aquifers, are currently being produced below the sustainable yield or, in the case of the Igneous Aquifer, right at the sustainable yield. In other words, groundwater production in our region has not yet exceeded sustainable production. This provides us with a rapidly closing window of opportunity to reach a regional consensus to pursue sustainable management of our aquifers and secure the future for ourselves and our descendants. As Mace points out, “In most (if not all) cases in Texas where desire-driven sustainable management has occurred, it has occurred where groundwater production was at or below the maximum sustainable amount of production, thus avoiding the formidable politics of having to reduce existing use.”

Local groundwater districts have already taken steps to increase monitoring and build a shared data platform to guide future management goals and improve coordination among districts. A region-wide monitoring system for groundwater quantity and quality is well within reach in the next 2 to 5 years. When asked about the value of preserving our local groundwater districts, Mace stated, “Given all the experience I’ve had with districts across the state, it’s clear that a well-funded district is the best way to achieve sustainable-production goals, thereby protecting every landowner’s private-property rights in groundwater.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]