The Law(ns) of the Land
West Austin residents drill for water
Jim Blair calls it "no-spill drill."
He can drop a backyard well without 20,000 gallons of mud pouring down a hillside, something that was impossible just five years ago. It's meant a boom of new residential work for his Bee Cave Drilling business, but it's also made him reflect on the long-term prospects of water in Texas, flowing at the intersection of 21st century Hill Country development and the traditional industries that make such development possible.
"We're as concerned about the quality and the quantity of these aquifers as anybody else," says Blair, "because that's our livelihood." But could this increased residential drilling be part of a much larger problem? Blair estimates that he has seen an average 5% drop in aquifer levels nearly every year during his last 18 years in the business across the roughly 150 square miles he works. "Of course it's a problem, but I'm not going to be the one to say who can or can't have water," he explains. "It's the law of the land; property owners should decide what they do with their water rights."
And in a summer of relentless, statewide drought, when Lake Travis looks like it's going bald from fast-declining water levels, some of Austin's wealthier residents remain determined to maintain their glittering and ever-thirsty green lawns. Near Balcones Drive in West Austin, heavy-duty boring equipment like Blair's has appeared in the neighborhood, along with neighbors' chatter about 300-foot holes in nearby backyards. In an area of stately lawns and six-figure house prices, wells are apparently being constructed to maintain those lawns while skirting the city's watering restrictions – and the accompanying fines. Yet it's unknown what kind of long-term damage this type of drilling may cause an already stressed aquifer system – and who, if anyone, has the authority to do anything about it.
Austin Water, the city's provider of water services to the Balcones Drive area, is charged with conserving the Colorado River and is currently restricting residential watering to two nights a week. This conservation effort, effective as it has been, has also become the catalyst for much of the drilling on Balcones as residents turn instead to tapping the aquifers underneath their properties. Utility spokesman Jason Hill flatly told the Chronicle, "The city has no jurisdiction over residential drilling."
Blair doesn't support the restrictions on new wells that other Western states have imposed – and which would, after all, put him out of business – but he praises the Lower Colorado River Authority for its impressive educational outreach on residential conservation. "I was pushing the Hays Trinity Conservation District to do public education when there was nothing but rules and no outreach," he says. He also argues that the untreated aquifer water makes a much better candidate for lawn watering than Colorado River water treated at ratepayers' expense. "If we could get a substantial number of people off of municipal sources," he says, "we wouldn't need all these expensive water treatment plants."
But that's not the end of the water cycle. Environmental engineer Lauren Ross of consultants Glenrose Engineering is convinced the drilling is disturbing the northern Edwards Aquifer. "They'll go as deep as they need to get water," she says. The northern part of the aquifer is hydrologically cut off from the rest by the Colorado River, so it is not the same source that feeds Austin's Barton Springs Pool. Nor is it a source for greater Austin's potable drinking or lawn-bound water, as most springs and aquifers of this kind are the result of rainwater catchments and their outlets rather than the Colorado. But well-drilling on the aquifer "could be diminishing the flow of small springs in that area, likely with endangered or near-endangered species," says Ross.
Indeed, the whole truth about the groundwater under Balcones Drive is essentially unknown, and what is known is clouded by the region's geologic complexity and the inability of regulatory bodies to account for it. "There's no regulatory authority in that area," says Guy Rials of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, speaking of groundwater under Balcones Drive. The state of Texas has given the designation of "priority groundwater management area" to the small strip of land that abuts Rials' turf and where the Hays Trinity Conservation District picks up just a few miles south. "But it was basically a designation that said the issues here need to be addressed through some regulatory process," says Rials. Shortly after the state's decision, that regulatory process was put on hold when residents voted to do without; he says, "There was a sentiment of overregulation by a government entity."
According to Rials, the city has nonetheless stopped approving neighborhood plats in West Austin for any new development that cannot prove access to a reliable water source. And Blair says the city will no longer allow AW to provide water for lawn irrigation at new developments, though well water is acceptable. Such decisions have been made since droughts in 2008 saw existing wells in recognized conservation districts dug deeper and deeper – though at Balcones Drive, no one knows for sure which aquifer is being tapped. "There's a lot of confusion out where the Edwards is the surface source, but beneath lies the Trinity," said Rials. "Many of the wells out there are hybrid wells, drawing from both aquifers, which isn't even allowed anymore."
There are some state-mandated regulations for the priority management area that Balcones Drive sits within – such as a daily limit of 25,000 gallons per well – but, Rials points out, "There's no enforcement." Texas' "rule of capture," a law crafted in 1904 and still enforced, declares that property owners have nearly unlimited rights to the groundwater available under their land. It wasn't until the late Eighties that legislation created groundwater conservation districts like BS/EACD, which have been playing catch-up in a seemingly fixed game ever since.
Rials says he does believe that as water shortages and resource conflicts increase, some kind of regulatory body with enforcement jurisdiction will eventually be formed in the area. However, the disparate conservation districts were created to manage a shared resource in a piecemeal manner, often responding to different constituents at different ends of the state. Rials confided, "In our management district, only 200 of the 8,500 wells even have permits, and anything dug before 1980 has been grandfathered in."
What's happening on Balcones Drive is Austin's own piece of the larger crisis facing groundwater sources throughout Texas. Until there is sufficient regulation or public pressure to do otherwise, it's likely that more wells will be drilled by residents determined to continue using diminishing groundwater as if it were an infinite resource.