Is Kyle’s Water Problem a Microcosm of Central Texas Drought Issues?
Straight outta water
Last week, after the city of Kyle realized it has already used 102% of its allotted water from the Edwards Aquifer for the year, they struck a friendly neighbor deal with the city of San Marcos, which voted to sell a portion of its water rights to Kyle. It's a temporary solution, just until the end of the year, but it begs larger questions about long-range water planning in the Hill Country. For instance: What happens if both cities run out of water at once?
San Marcos gets its water from the Canyon Lake reservoir and the Edwards Aquifer; Kyle uses both of those, plus treated wastewater. The Edwards Aquifer is currently fully permitted, so no one can increase their permit amount or get a new one, although cities are able to lease their permits. Because of current Edwards Aquifer Authority Stage 4 drought restrictions, San Marcos' pumping has been reduced by 40% to protect the flow of the San Marcos Springs. In a recent press release, John Hofmann, executive vice president of water at the Lower Colorado River Authority, wrote, "Many of our municipal and industrial customers contract for water they expect to need in the future, as well as what they need today. Because of that, the amount of water customers actually use is significantly below the total amount committed for future use." Austin, for reference, has only used 35% of its permit from LCRA through August; last year in full, we only used about 54%.
This is why Robert Mace, executive director at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, says he's not worried about the Kyle news. The Edwards Aquifer is highly protected both locally and federally as a habitat for endangered species; Kyle's increased pumping may affect the flow of the springs in San Marcos, but it won't dry them up.
Still, as the drought drags on and the Hill Country continues to experience skyrocketing growth and ensuing demand, if cities can't pump the Edwards more, they'll have to consider new sources. One such source is the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer south of San Antonio. A new project, the Alliance Regional Water Authority – comprising the cities of San Marcos, Kyle, and Buda and the Canyon Regional Water Authority – is planning to build a pipeline to deliver water from the Carrizo-Wilcox to Central Texas.
But that aquifer is not as reliable as the Edwards, says Mace. Because it's composed of sandstone rather than limestone, "it's not replenished as quickly," he explains. It also isn't protected at the same level as the Edwards, "so you can pull the water levels down much more over there from a management perspective." Plus, "there's concern that the Carrizo has become the go-to resource in the I-35 growth corridor, right? We're not looking at any new major reservoirs in the area. The Edwards is permitted up, the Trinity just doesn't produce the big water that this growth needs. And so everybody and their third uncle's looking to the Carrizo-Wilcox, and it does have its limitations."
As for Austin, according to the 2022 state water plan, we're steadily growing additional water supply and not looking at the possibility of a deficit until 2070. Kyle, on the other hand, is looking at potential shortages by 2030. (But those predictions are questionable, because the Texas Water Development Board plans for water based on the drought of record in the 1950s and does not use the word "climate change" once.)
The next drought might well surpass the last, which is why Austin has the 100-year Water Forward plan, set to be updated next year. "The reason Austin's doing Water Forward is because this water planning does not consider climate change," says Mace. "I think we're going to face challenges with the Colorado River and the Highland Lakes with climate change and growth; we're going to be tapping into that lake more and more. But I think that water supply management issues will show up sooner at the Carrizo than the Highland Lakes. I'm concerned that we're going to overtap that supply probably within the next 10 to 20 years."
As far as what we can expect from the Highland Lakes, LCRA is updating its Water Supply Resource Report for supplies through 2080 by late next year. After cutting off most agricultural customers on the Colorado River earlier this year, LCRA expects to bring the new Arbuckle Reservoir online by the end of next year, which will serve Wharton County rice farmers and others downstream with 90,000 new acre-feet annually. "We are very focused on finding new water supplies," Hofmann wrote. "The 'easy' water supplies have already been developed. The new solutions are going to be more expensive and more innovative." In a piece of good news short-term, it's likely that El Niño weather conditions will increase rainfall this year, replenishing the lakes and the aquifer: "I'm feeling pretty good," says Mace. "Now, if we don't get good rains over the next year, by the end of spring I'll be a little despondent."
Editor's Note Sept. 29 12:10pm: This story has been updated to correct that the Arbuckle Reservoir will bring 90,000 acre-feet of water to LCRA customers in the lower basin, not 590,000. We regret the error.