Austin's Water Prospectors
New city rules have slowed the demand, but urban wells remain a hot commodity in wealthy neighborhoods
There's a price to pay for watering lawns and filling swimming pools, but hundreds of Austin residents have discovered they can run the tap as long as they want and still evade a high utility bill – and even restrictions on lawn watering. Their rule of thumb? The "rule of capture" – the state's long established, tried-and-tested property rights law granting property owners the right to "capture" and use the water beneath their land.
Well water is the lifeblood of rural areas and far-flung subdivisions around Austin, but in the last few years it's also become a trendy amenity in the well-to-do neighborhoods of West Austin. Facing an unrelenting drought, outdoor watering restrictions, and rising water bills, many homeowners with discretionary incomes have responded by drilling hundreds of feet below the surface to draw from an unregulated section of the Edwards Aquifer.
By sinking between $20,000 and $30,000 into a new well, homeowners can defy Mother Nature and the utility, while recouping their investment through savings on their water bill.
The urban well-drilling craze began gathering steam in 2009, eventually creating a domino effect in the 78703 ZIP code – home to some of the city's most influential movers and shakers, and ground zero for the surge in drilling activity during 2011 and 2012 (first reported in the Chronicle in July 2011.) The high-water mark of 2012 saw 137 new wells drilled in the city's service area, about 62 of them in 78703, which includes Pemberton Heights, an old-money neighborhood of stately mansions on large lots, and Tarrytown, just west of MoPac.
Urban well owners comprise an elite class whose members include UT coaches Mack Brown and Rick Barnes, and golfing legend Ben Crenshaw. In the spring of 2012, Attorney General Greg Abbott – potentially the next governor, in line to lead a new $2 billion state water program – hired a driller to install a well on his Pemberton Heights property. Eight months later, his neighbor down the road, former House Speaker and current Rep. Tom Craddick, an oil man from Midland, began pumping water from the aquifer, too.
As West Austin vibrated with drilling activity during 2011 and 2012, city water officials were monitoring the rising number of city wells appearing on the database of the state water board, which registers well-drilling. But the lag time between well installations and data entries was frustrating to Austin Water officials, as was the uncertainty of how many new wells were in the pipeline. More alarming, the number of wells going into the ground was outpacing the number of permits the city was issuing for electrical and plumbing work on wells.
Acting on what little local, indirect power it has over water wells – its charge to protect the healthfulness and safety of the municipal water system – the city, in October 2012, enacted an ordinance requiring registration of existing, new, or planned wells on properties that receive water or wastewater service from the city. The registration mandate, and $90 annual fee, put the city in a better position to enforce the permit requirement for electrical and plumbing work performed at the well site.
"For whatever reason, these well drillers were operating under the assumption that all they have to do is meet state requirements," said Tony Canales, special services division manager overseeing the ordinance's implementation. "We started finding cross connections, where the pump itself actually exceeded city water pressure, causing well water to pump back into our system," he said. Now, the city can prevent future such mishaps with advance notice requirements, which prospective well owners must file five business days before starting any type of well work, whether it's drilling a new well or plugging an old one.
Texas Monthly founder and community activist Mike Levy added a well to his property shortly before the ordinance went into effect. But Levy, the son of a master plumber, said he didn't need an ordinance to tell him you shouldn't cross-connect a well with the city's water system. Levy, who serves on the city's Public Safety Commission, says he uses the well water for irrigating and maintaining his pool. By his own account, he is a frugal and responsible well owner who follows the same once-weekly outdoor watering schedule that the city applies to water customers. Keeping water in the pool during hot summer months is a little trickier, given the high rate of evaporation. "I think I'm doing a good thing by not tapping into the city water supply," Levy said.
While it wasn't the city's expressed intent to curtail the well explosion over an unregulated portion of the Edwards Aquifer, the ordinance has apparently put a crimp in the drilling business. As of Nov. 1, about 65 new water wells had been drilled in the city service area since the ordinance took effect, compared to the 137 drilled in 2012.
All told, the city now has 320 well registrations on file for existing and new wells, but there are several hundred other unregistered wells – many of them decades old – that the city needs to check on. "We stepped in to make sure people follow health and safety regulations and to protect the water supply for our customers," said Daryl Slusher, an Austin Water assistant director who oversees the utility's conservation programs. "If there's been a decrease in the amount of drilling since then, that's just a side effect, but we were aiming at health and safety."
Bee Cave Drilling of Dripping Springs, until recently one of the most active drillers on the west side, has seen much of its urban business dry up in the last year. "For a long time we were really focused on Pemberton Heights and Tarrytown neighborhoods," project manager Kevin Langford said. "But those areas have really slowed down since that ordinance went in. A lot of folks just don't want to report to the city that they have a well. They don't want government in their business any more than they have to. There's a certain level of distrust there ... they're afraid that the city is going to come in and prevent them from using their well. We're assuring people that the city doesn't have that authority.
"I obviously wish they hadn't made things a little bit more complicated," he said, before adding brightly, "but they certainly have worked well with us and they're working well with the customers."
Well of Uncertainty
The importance of knowing where the wells are and what they're used for – most are for irrigating – extends beyond protecting the public water system. Local authorities and environmentalists are also concerned about the long-term impact the additional wells will have on this section of the Edwards Aquifer. Unlike the Barton Springs segment to the south, where the groundwater is regulated by a conservation district, little is known about the northern segment. "There hasn't been enough study on this aquifer, but this is something the Watershed Protection Department is beginning to do as part of this ordinance," Slusher said. Monitoring wells are being drilled to address two key questions: How much water is in the aquifer, and how much pumping can it sustain?
At a time when Texas is addressing the state's shrinking water supply by establishing a $2 billion fund to pay for reservoirs, pipelines, and – by law – conservation programs, one has to wonder how Abbott, should he become governor, would address the state's water shortages while draining a natural water source to keep his grass green.
Environmental engineer Lauren Ross knows a few things about this section of the aquifer from her work on the city's Water Treatment Plant 4 project, as well as her own curiosity. What Ross has found is that the northern aquifer water exists mostly in isolated pockets that bubble up in a lot of little springs rather than a single big one. "And if you look at those springs just strictly from a water supply perspective, they're almost so small as to be ludicrous" – meaning they'll eventually fall victim to the water well trend.
However small the springs are, they still hold historical and species value, Ross said. "There seems to be a relationship between things that can't live anywhere else that are dependent on the tiny little spring flows," she said. She has located one of these newly endangered springs north of 38th Street, on the east side of Shoal Creek. Another she's found near Red Bud Isle, in an area that she accessed by boat. This is where Ross found what she described as a beautiful spring system, replete with an old stone wall that she reckons is the remnant of a spring house. Eventually, that beautiful spring system will go dry from all the pumping in Pemberton Heights, she said. "How are we going to weigh the value of these small springs against a private property owner's right to fill a pool and have a grassy, green lawn?"
That's a question Austin may need to answer.
Water Wells Drilled
Irrigation and domestic wells drilled for residential and commercial use in the city’s water/wastewater service area
In the last four years, more wells than ever have been drilled in Austin, with the most noticeable – and unusual – concentration accumulating in West Austin neighborhoods straddling MoPac, where urban dwellers have turned to groundwater for their irrigation needs. The 2011-12 boom added 80 new private residential wells to the 78703 landscape alone, according to Texas Water Development Board records.
The growth spurt has cooled this year, after the city enacted a well registration ordinance in October 2012. Since then, the city has received 320 well registrations for existing and new water wells (as of July), but says there are still an estimated 375 unregistered wells, many of them decades old. A smaller segment of working wells are for public supply, livestock, monitoring, and industrial use.