Our Water Matters

Coping with drought in Central Texas

The Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts held its largest-ever annual Groundwater Summit in San Antonio last week with over 400 attendees. The summit kicked off with a lively panel moderated by John Dupnik of the Texas Water Development Board on “Managing Groundwater in Drought.” Panelists included Kody Bessent of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., Charlie Flatten from Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, and Amy Hardberger of the Texas Tech Center for Water Law and Policy.

As springs systems across the region perform encore vanishing acts, including Jacob’s Well outside Austin and Las Moras near Brackettville, all of the panelists agreed on the urgent need to rethink groundwater management. One idea could involve using better triggers, such as extreme temperatures, soil moisture, or lack of rainfall, to activate water conservation measures, “instead of merely obsessing over groundwater levels in the Edwards Aquifer,” according to Hardberger. Flatten asserted that drought contingency plans also need to “tap the brakes earlier” to better avoid critical shortages.

One of the biggest challenges identified by the panel was growth. Hardberger lamented the pattern of development in unincorporated areas of the Hill Country, where land is routinely “scraped clean” of trees and native vegetation in precisely those areas where aquifer recharge occurs. As a result, the ability of the aquifer to recharge is increasingly impaired just as water use in those areas intensifies. According to Hardberger, when it comes to groundwater, “It’s not just a matter of pulling it out. It’s increasingly a matter of how we get it back in.”

The situation is so dire that Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which is experiencing some of the fastest growth in the country, has put a moratorium on all new permitting. Flatten, who is general manager there, confirmed that “it’s a powerful tool” but questioned whether it’s enough since most users in his district, including agriculture, are exempt from any regulation.

Bessent stated that groundwater management “is about conservation” and related that one of the lessons learned from the 2010s was to switch crops instead of “pushing aquifers beyond their limits and placing future groundwater resources at risk.” Flatten affirmed that agriculture has “done more than any sector to bring down use” by changing crops, improving irrigation practices, and fallowing fields. Hardberger concurred, saying that “ag gets a bad name” because they use a lot of groundwater in absolute numbers, while urban areas use comparatively less. But if we look more closely at actual urban uses, she said, we may find that “the most extensive crop we grow is turf grass.” 

Flatten spoke of the lack of tools to enforce pumping restrictions and mentioned the inadequacy of instruments like fines, stating, “I don’t need their money. I need them to continue to have water.” In order to reach landowners, Flatten has had to get creative with his messaging by appealing to economics and asking them, “What is your land going to be worth if your water dries up?” He also encourages folks to take advantage of the rainwater harvesting professionals in the Dripping Springs area if they want to achieve “water independence” from the groundwater district. 

In light of the enormous amounts of groundwater used to maintain lawns, Hardberger observed that there has never been any real challenge to what constitutes “waste” under Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code that governs groundwater. She wondered if perhaps it might be time to “try out novel claims” for waste to get a handle on groundwater pumping. 

Ultimately, said Hardberger, “We need to change the aesthetic in our head” and move away from sprawling green lawns. “We have to work within these new parameters” and accept that current conditions could be “ever-worsening.” A simple equation helps elucidate the problem: status quo + more people + less rain = assured depletion of our aquifers. If drought is the “new normal,” then permanent watering restrictions in cities and suburbs could be an obvious first step to help homeowners manage their expectations and plant landscaping that works in this environment. Despite the grim reality, “Some of our most innovative approaches have come from when things got really bad,” according to Hardberger. Perhaps “we don’t even talk about it as drought,” but instead as simply “where we live.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]