Nature's Water Clinic

Drought Has San Antonio Over a Pump

Know some water-loving Californians thinking about moving here? Invite them for a weekend of rafting on the Blanco River -- they'll be paddling the driest riverbed this side of Death Valley. That oughta cure 'em. In other words, if anything is going to slow growth in Central Texas, it's the drought. When Comal Springs -- the Edwards Aquifer's largest outlet, and the largest spring in the southwestern United States -- slows to a trickle and finally stops some time in late August as predicted, the point should be nailed home: Water is Texas' most precious, and most endangered, resource.

Try telling that to San Antonio Mayor William Thornton -- the endangered part -- and he'll agree with you. To a point. Other things are on his mind at the moment, however. San Antonio's one million residents rely solely upon the dwindling reserves of the Edwards Aquifer for their water supply -- pumping 188,000 gallons per day, making that city the largest water user in the region. "Businesses are looking to locate in San Antonio," stresses Thornton. "If we can't promise them a constant supply of water, they'll go elsewhere."

That kind of attitude has set San Antonio at odds with environmental groups and biologists who warn that continued unrestricted pumping of the southern section of the Edwards, which serves 1.5 million people from Kyle to near Brackettville in Kinney County, is a risk to the health and safety of the entire region. And because the aquifer's springs are home to several animals listed under the Endangered Species Act, it has even pitted San Antonio against the state Legislature, to whom federal intervention is tantamount to another surrender to the Yankees.

One of the key players in this political drama is the Sierra Club, which filed suit on June 10 in U.S. District Court in Midland against San Antonio and more than a thousand other pumpers, including cities, water utilities, agricultural users, and the U.S. Department of Defense, which runs two military bases reliant upon the aquifer. Known as Sierra Club v. San Antonio, et al., the suit, filed under the Endangered Species Act, asks the court to enforce a pumping limit of winter peak usage plus 20% -- or what's called a "1.2 formula" -- on the main aquifer users. Cities and utilities named in the suit include San Antonio, the Bexar Metropolitan Water District, San Marcos, the New Braunfels Utilities, Uvalde, Hondo, and Leon Valley.

Normally at this time of year, the Edwards Aquifer stands at about 660 feet above sea level, as measured at a benchmark well known as J-17. But last week, the level in J-17 was at 631 feet. As a result, the aquifer's primary outlets, Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs, are both running low: As of July 22, Comal was flowing at 82 cubic feet per second (cfs), one-third its normal strength; and San Marcos was at 83 cfs, less than half of normal flow. Comal Springs is predicted to run completely dry if the aquifer level at J-17 falls to 618-620 feet, but by then the endangered species could be long gone. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the endangered species in the two springs -- including the fountain darter, the San Marcos Gambusia, the San Marcos Salamander, Texas Wild Rice, and the Texas Blind Salamander -- are put in jeopardy at spring flows less than 150 cfs.

The species that can be captured by net-wielding biologists are being transferred to the San Marcos National Fish Hatchery for safekeeping and breeding. Meanwhile, Prof. Glen Longley, director of the Edwards Aquifer Research Center at Southwest Texas State University, believes that "the course the Sierra Club took was not completely unreasonable... [The drought] is already on top of us."

Together, the springs make up 80% of the Guadalupe River flow; many communities downstream depend on the Guadalupe for drinking water, and industrial and agricultural use. The river is flowing at only 14% its normal rate, and depleted flow means negative health and economic changes for those communities -- all the way down to San Antonio Bay on the Gulf. Fed by both the Guadalupe and San Antonio Rivers, the bay's estuaries are already experiencing increased salinity levels, which are expected to reduce the shrimp, oyster, and crab populations in the bay.

San Antonio seemed to be the main target of the Sierra Club lawsuit, since they, unlike their neighboring communities, have failed to meet the 1.2 formula. Oddly, the 1.2 formula is San Antonio's own goal set by their water utility. So why haven't they met their own standards? Joe Aceves, head of the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) argues that "it's tough... We're at about 1.4 now. We set the goal down lower to emphasize that there's a real emergency situation," but they didn't expect to meet it, he says.

It's not for lack of a water management plan -- San Antonio adopted one in 1994 -- but the lack of political will to go to emergency stages of conservation. San Antonio residents love their St. Augustine grass. And just this spring, the city was courting a semiconductor maker -- a water-dependent industry -- to relocate to the Alamo City. "Thornton has been defensive on the subject of water," says Tom Dukes, chair of the San Antonio chapter of the Sierra Club. "He's never really been involved in environmental issues -- he believes it's an impediment to growth, and detrimental to this city." Thornton's attitude has made San Antonio seem like the "problem child" to its regional neighbors -- fiddling while Rome burns.

In his defense, the mayor boasts that San Antonio has decreased their pumping by nearly 11% in the past ten years. That's a major accomplishment, he says, since, "at the same time, we've grown by 200,000 people." For the last several months, the city has done, in the mayor's words, "the best that it can" to cut down on consumption.

But in reality, San Antonio has been slow on the water conservation concept. SAWS didn't began mandatory "Stage III" conservation policies -- just short of "emergency" level measures -- until May when the aquifer was already far below normal standards and other communities had kicked into strict conservation mode. Despite estimates that Central Texas is not expected to have significant rainfall for two more months, San Antonio still refuses to prohibit lawn sprinkler watering, as most of the surrounding communities have already done. "We consider people watering their lawns as a quality of life issue, and safety, considering grass fires," says SAWS' Joe Aceves. What about allowing only hand-watering, as San Marcos does? "That's not helpful -- it doesn't accomplish the goal," argues Aceves.

Besides, says Thornton, what about all the lawn-care folks who would be out of work if the grass dried up around the city?

San Antonio could go farther -- their city code allows it -- to implement a "Stage IV" emergency level as listed in their "Aquifer Management Plan." The code doesn't specify what measures would be taken, only that it would go into effect based on water quality, and that "appropriate additional measures to protect the aquifer shall be implemented as necessary." Longley of SWT warns that water quality may suffer if the aquifer gets too low. Pockets of "bad" water -- contaminated with salt and toxic, smelly, hydrogen sulfide -- lie in various spots underneath the pristine water above. No one knows for sure at what level this would occur. But as Dukes says, "better to err on the side of conservation than take the risk."

Officials from both New Braunfels and San Marcos say they are looking to San Antonio to help alleviate the threat of low or dried up springs by meeting the 1.2 formula. New Braunfels, in particular, is heavily dependent on Comal Springs for the town's $100 million water-based tourist industry, although they have switched up to 90% of their water supply to the Guadalupe River. New Braunfels has met the 1.2 formula throughout this crisis, says City Manager Mike Shands, to help keep Comal alive. "There are the obvious environmental reasons, but also, we have one of the lowest property tax rates in the state. One of the reasons is because of our high sales tax revenue [through tourist sales], which is about 32% of our budget."

"We've been hitting those [1.2 formula] targets on a monthly average. We think it's doable," says San Marcos City Attorney Mark Taylor, adding that he'd like to see Judge Bunton tell everyone in the region, especially San Antonio, to cut back. "We'd like to be able to say it's the big pumpers who are responsible, not us little pumpers," said Taylor. San Marcos pumps six million gallons a day, compared to San Antonio's 188 million. But San Marcos' total dependence on the aquifer will end in September: Their city council just approved an $8.5 million contract to treat water piped in from Canyon Reservoir. That move leaves San Antonio as the only major Texas city wholly dependent on groundwater.

Mayor Thornton says he blames the Sierra Club for that deficiency. "We have no options. The Sierra Club helped defeat [the referendum on the Applewhite reservoir] in 1991, and now we have no water system." The reservoir was "a really, really bad idea," argues Dukes. "It was too shallow and had too many pumps -- it would have been just a huge evaporation lake." No plans are in the works for alternative sources at this time.

Nevertheless, Dukes and his colleagues at the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter have become the butt of all Thornton's jokes. "The Sierra Club would sue Mother Nature herself is they could find a court to take the case," he laughs. The mayor will concede that Central Texas is experiencing a severe drought, and that San Antonio must act responsibly, but he maintains that Comal Springs cannot be helped by him. "If San Antonio completely stopped drinking water today, Comal Springs would not be saved... The reality is there's a severe drought." As for the endangered species in the springs, Thornton further comments that "the saving actions [for the species] have already occurred. Any further restrictions do not save the animals, it just threatens jobs." Thornton maintains that he will fight the lawsuit and restrictions "to the fullest extent, all the way to the Supreme Court."

"The people in San Antonio are very upset that this whole thing is about a little critter," says Aceves, who shares the mayor's distaste for the lawsuit, and the possibility of forced pumping restrictions. "We've got to reach those one million people and show them the benefits of a regulated management plan. But it's not going to happen if the Sierra Club keeps coming back with lawsuits."

Or perhaps it will. On July 17, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Lucius Bunton ruled against the Sierra Club's request for a temporary restraining order to implement the 1.2 formula, but asked instead that all the defendants get together over the next two weeks to come to an agreement on a water conservation plan. Bunton scheduled a hearing for August 1 to review the agreement and decide if further legal action is necessary. The Sierra Club didn't exactly lose -- the parties involved, with the exception of San Antonio, have indicated that the 1.2 formula will likely be a standard in the agreement. And although the stricter restrictions may not save the springs, it will slow down what looks to be the eventual depletion.

The lawsuit was another attempt to enforce the Endangered Species Act, but it also meant something else: The possibility of a ruling -- in federal court -- on water "rights" and the legality of restricting those rights. The common practice of "rule of capture" -- meaning that groundwater is the property of the landholder above it and can be pumped out without restrictions -- has held sway in decades of legislative battles pitting property rights versus the common good. Only recently has this battle reached a fever pitch, with the Legislature finally putting into place the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) in 1993 to create water policy and management plans that would limit pumping. (Facing impending federal intervention from Bunton's court brought on by another Sierra Club lawsuit -- Sierra Club v. Babbitt -- the Legislature was essentially forced to consider, and finally approved, the creation of the EAA.) The Authority was stalled due to U.S. Justice Department delays and constitutional challenges that went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, but the threat of federal intervention, should the EAA fail to pass muster, was enough to get the Attorney General's office to defend it -- and the state's right to limit water use -- in front of the state Supreme Court. In June, the court upheld the Authority's constitutionality.

Given that the EAA was upheld in June, why not give the 20-member EAA board, which has representatives from the aquifer region's municipalities, a chance to step up to the plate? Sierra Club attorney Stuart Henry argues that "the EAA is not there yet -- we've talked with their board members and it will be a long while before any action would be taken" to put in place any pumping restrictions. In fact, it could be several months to a year before a permanent plan is in place, according to EAA board member Paula DiFonzo, general manager of the New Braunfels Utilities. But in the short term, she says, the EAA is in "high gear," and will remain so until the draft rules for a "Critical Period Management Plan" are reviewed by the board on July 31. If accepted, and with the consent of the defendants in the case, the plan will be presented to Judge Bunton as an agreement, and "will go into effect immediately," says DiFonzo, for 120 days or a maximum of 180 days. "We're talking about the 1.2 formula as our standard to keep a consistency with what the Sierra Club is asking and what some of the cities are already implementing."

Pumping restrictions through this critical period are one thing, given the oversight of a federal judge, but the long-term view for enforcement of EAA rules looks bleak. The problem is money -- the EAA doesn't have any. With only $1.7 million left in transfers from the defunct Edwards Underground Water District it replaced, the EAA has barely enough to continue the well monitoring and water testing necessary to determine compliance with its policies. "We need about $3.5 million per year," says DiFonzo. Operating funds will eventually come out of fees charged to large users, but the delay in the courts over the past two years caused delay in setting up the basic fee structure. "We're ongoing now, but we'll have to look at what can be done to get funding," says DiFonzo. "We might have to go to the Legislature for more money."

The idea of water conserva- tion is onerous enough to most Texas cities during the summer, but forced conservation from a governmental body that costs money? Add to that political bill the fact that the EAA is to be an elected body, and the first elections are coming up in November. The campaign platforms could be interesting -- the lower the fees, and the less restrictions, the better the candidate. The EAA might take the place of the State Treasurer's office as another conservative launchpad.

So Thornton has reason to rest easy -- his city pumps out of the deepest part of the aquifer, so he has little concern that this year, this drought, will dessicate their city. While others dither over the drought, Thornton knows that San Antonio will be good to the last drop. n

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