Well of Controversy: Water Hogs Threaten Farm

Water shortage in East Travis County growth corridor threatens Tecolote Farm

Tecolote Farm owners Katie and David Pitre survey a water-starved field.
Tecolote Farm owners Katie and David Pitre survey a water-starved field. (Photo by John Anderson)

Local organic grower Tecolote Farm may be forced out of business if the current climate – political and meteorological – doesn't change soon. The farm needs water, and when it doesn't come from the hot skies, it must be pumped from the ground. Unfortunately, the state's lack of water management is making that option nearly impossible.

David and Katie Pitre founded their farm 15 years ago near Manor, in Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction. The farm, just east of FM 973, has weathered all manner of drought and pestilence to provide local farmers' markets and customers with more than 150 varieties of certified organic vegetables. Until last year, that is.

In 2007, the Pitres' well was running dry, and they were forced to suspend operations, losing an entire year's profits. Their hand-dug well had been in operation since time immemorial and penetrated 26 feet below the surface. "It was always at 13 feet [down]," David says of the water level. "It might have dropped to 15 feet in the very worst drought." But by August 2006, the water receded to 18.5 feet, and by December it was down to 20 feet. To the family, it was no coincidence that this occurred roughly at the same time that several high-capacity pumps were installed down the road. The Manville Water Supply Co. has six high-capacity pumps that deliver chlorinated drinking water to several local developments. In addition, Southwest Water Co. has two pumps in the same area that bring potable water to its customers. And last November, the Travis Co. Transportation & Natural Resources Depart­ment put in two pumps over the localized alluvial aquifer (an aquifer encased in sand and gravel, as opposed to limestone) to provide irrigation to its East Metropolitan Park.

The Pitres had been tracking the slow decline of their older well for some years and in 2006 spent $7,000 on a new well that plunged 40 feet below ground. When the old well ran dry in December, they used the new one, but it began to lose water, and three months later, it, too, was dry.

Here's where things get tricky. After hearing from the Pitres, the county subsequently issued a report conducted by the Thornhill Group, which concluded that the county's pumping was not affecting the farm wells. The basis for this conclusion was the geological position of the farm's wells – essentially in the shallow end of the aquifer. While the Pitres took umbrage with the report – their years of data certainly seem to provide anecdotal evidence to the contrary – the county continues to stand by the results. Says Precinct 1 County Commissioner Ron Davis: "The issue is, are we taking water from [them]? And the answer is, no, we're not. That's the bottom line."

Well of Controversy: Water Hogs Threaten Farm

However, several hydrologists familiar with the report call its data into question. "I don't think the consultant hired by the county really did the work that's required to answer this question," says San Antonio hydrologist George Rice. He insists that "pumped aquifer testing" is necessary to understand the effect of the county's wells on nearby wells. Also, Rice says, "They didn't measure the hydraulic properties of the aquifer in the immediate vicinity of the county wells and the farm well." That's the best way to estimate the long-term effects the county wells will have on the farm wells, he said.

The details get even peskier. Katie had filed an open records request for the Thornhill report and all of its data, but she has yet to receive anything aside from the actual report – and the data, she was told, must first be handed off from Thornhill to the county. Bruce Darling, of Southwest Ground­water Consult­ing, says: "There are things that are missing from the report that I would like to see, appendices for example, that would make evaluating the report much easier. It would also help to be able to see the field notes and calculations ... the report gives you a conclusion but doesn't really lead you through the numbers." However, Darling cautions, the report's particular details can overshadow the bigger picture. "The issue is not so much the Thornhill report so much as the basic body of law regulating what can and can't be done," he says.

Even if the county wells were sucking the farm wells dry, there is no legal recourse due to the state's right-of-capture laws governing groundwater. Because Tecolote Farm is in an ETJ without a groundwater conservation district, there is no authority that regulates the pumping of groundwater. The Texas Supreme Court has affirmed this right in even the most dire scenarios. In 1904, the first ruling on right of capture allowed the railroads to pump water for their steam engines right out from under a farm. In 1954, the town of Fort Stock­ton lost Comanche Springs – the source of many farms' irrigation water – when the family of West Texas millionaire and gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams pumped it dry to grow their own alfalfa. Without strong water-use policies at the state level, the competition for the same resources becomes a free-for-all, with the small farmer drawing the shortest straw.

To add insult to injury, Katie Pitre says the county routinely irrigates its soccer fields in the middle of the day, with scorching heat and high winds, and she has photos that appear to prove this; they depict gallons of precious water running off the asphalt of the park.

The Pitres have pleaded for assistance from the county, although they acknowledge the county is not legally bound to provide it. Davis asked county staff to check into a commun­ity development block grant to fund the drilling of a deeper well – perhaps 1,500 to 2,500 feet down, through the shale. Yet even a deeper well, says Marcus Gray, a hydrologist with Zara Environmental, would be "an iffy and expensive gamble." The Trinity Aquifer in this part of the county is potentially contaminated with salt and oil, and the cost of such a well would be enormous. Ann Mesrobian, a board member of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District in Bastrop and Lee counties, points out: "It's kind of a crap shoot. ... If there's plenty of water in the Trinity, then why hasn't Manville [Water Supply Co.] decided to deepen their wells where they are, instead of coming to our district and drilling new wells?"

Options for the farm appear limited. Davis sent a letter to the Pitres recommending they speak with Manville and other suppliers for assistance with delivery of water. However, Manville doesn't sell untreated water at an agricultural rate, and so the cost of watering their fields would drive them out of business. And the county so far opposes selling untreated water to the farm. "We're not a utility," Davis says, "but at least we can try to help, and [the commun­ity development block grant] is the only way I know to help." Mesrobian says: "I wish the county would see the value of local farm production and would find a way [to provide water]. I don't think there's anything that legally prevents them from doing that, but they would have to decide it was necessary and the right thing to do." But with other farms in the area, the precedent could be a deterrent.

David Pitre's monitoring of the well's history has shown that its level rises during the winter months, when the county and residents lay off heavy grass watering. But without a guiding entity, year-round water-conservation measures are unlikely. In the meantime, look for the Pitres' vast customer base – a who's who of influential movers and shakers – to begin applying political pressure for a swift solution to save the farm.

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Tecolote Farm, David Pitre, Katie Pitre, Ron Davis, Travis County, East Metropolitan Park, Manville Water Supply Co.

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