by Crystal Gottfried
The South Central Texas Water Advisory Committee began voicing objections to the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s announcement that they plan to ask the 2007 Legislature to raise their pumping caps from 450,000 to 549,000 acre feet per year.
On Sept 12, the EAA directors said they will go to the 80th Texas Legislature to request an increased groundwater pumping cap that will help in protecting local spring flows. The board said they hope this action will assist them in being better stewards of the water supply for more than 1.7 million south Texans, and allow it to better manage the aquifer.
Board Chairman and former New Braunfels mayor, Doug Miller said that the agency’s legislative priorities for the Jan. 7 legislative session would be to raise the pumping cap from 450,000 acre feet to 549,000 acre feet by converting junior rights into senior rights; incorporate drought reductions into the statute, including a reduction of withdrawals to 340,000 acre feet when all of the pools of the aquifer are at the most severe drought levels; ensure that the costs associated with future permit reductions are borne equally by downstream permit holders in the Guadalupe River Basin and Edwards Aquifer permit holders, and granting the authority legal ability to build recharge structures and issue bonds.
Objections by the SCTWA to the EAA plan appeared immediately in an article in the “Victoria Advocate” on Sept. 21, and then on Sept. 24, in the “San Marcos Record,” right after the 20 member committee presented its 2006 Draft Assessment Report on the effectiveness of the aquifer authority.
Mark Taylor, the committee representative from Hays County, presented the report that said the EAA had successfully met the bulk of the effectiveness measures that the SCTWAC set in 2004, but fell short on a few major issues.
Regarding the Authority’s habitat conservation plans, Taylor said that the EAA’s most recent plan would put too much emphasis on keeping species alive in remote locations (refugia) if the springs that support them were to dry up and “less on making sure the spring systems remain healthy.”
Taylor said that the SCTWAC does not believe that EAA comes anywhere close to satisfying the criteria for an approved plan.
“It’s far from the true intent of the Endangered Species Act which is to recover the species or de-list them,” he said. “Basically the EAA is saying that removing the species and propagating them in captivity is enough to comply with the Endangered Species Act.”
Taylor also said the committee believes the EAA’s drought management rules “need tightening.” Currently, the strictest of its four stages calls for only a 23 percent reduction in pumping from the Edwards.
“That’s the maximum reduction called for,” said Taylor. “That would still allow pumping at the Stage 4 level. Permit holders would still be able to pump 77 percent of their rights, which history tells us would dry up the Comal Springs for an extended period of time — much longer than the six months they ran dry in 1956.”
Because the San Marcos Springs did not go dry during that “drought of record,” Taylor said it’s anybody’s guess what might happen from now on out, when many more people are reliant on the Edwards for water.
“We do not have historical experience of the aquifer getting down below the level it was in 1956 when the Comal Springs went dry, so we don’t know what would happen with San Marcos Springs.”
Taylor said a third area of concern is junior/senior pumping permits and the fact that the EAA recently implemented rules that would increase the overall amount that could be pumped from the aquifer each year. While he said the EAA has the right to make such rules, the agency failed to adhere to its mandate to do so only if its board finds there is “additional supply,” or conducts “scientific consultation.”
“The aquifer can drop two feet per day, and because it impacts the flow of the Guadalupe River, it affects cities like Victoria, which has been restricted from pumping from the river and must rely on well water and other off-river sources to supply Victorians,” the report said.
The Victoria County representative to SCTWAC Bob Keith said that EAA’s request and the legislature’s decision could ultimately increase Victoria’s “chances of being out of water, given the proper conditions, since the aquifer affects the flow of the Guadalupe River.”
Victoria’s Mayor Will Armstrong said, “The Guadalupe River is our defining geographic feature . . . and now it’s our lifeblood. The EAA decisions then could have an impact on the river flow and the city’s ability to draw water from it.”
All of the largest spring flows originate from the Edwards, but the springs are especially critical to the water supply for San Marcos, New Braunfels and Victoria.
The Texas House and Senate Natural Resources Committee met in San Antonio on Sept. 23 to hear testimony from municipalities and water utilities regarding the drought’s effect on the Edwards Aquifer and as a result, spring flows from the Comal and San Marcos Rivers that are major tributaries to the Guadalupe River.
An editorial in the “San Antonio Express News” on Sept. 23 drew even more attention to the EAA’s plans and the opposition it was stirring along the region’s interconnected water system.
Acknowledging that the ongoing drought was a huge problem for the entire region, the editorial cited the problems that Victoria was experiencing because “of surface water rights distribution, the Guadalupe’s condition is hurting communities from Kerrville to Victoria.
“As San Antonians cope with water restrictions, they should realize that residents across the region are in this together and cooperation is a necessity. As Edwards users ask lawmakers to lift the pumping cap during times of plenty, they must realize that a tough pumping limit during time of drought is vital to the economies of downstream communities.”
The editorial urged water planners to maintain a “heightened awareness of the region’s interconnected water system as it urged “water officials from across the region to approach the issue with a spirit of cooperation.”
Information provided by General Manager Bill West of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to the joint House-Senate meeting indicated that the EAA proposal of raising the pumping cap to 549 acre feet per year and placing the floor at 340,000 acft/yr during a drought simply won’t work.
“It won’t keep the springs from going dry,” said West. “In the drought of record in the 1950’s, Comal Springs went dry for 144 days, and the pumping then was at 321,000 acft/yr. We have a heck of a lot more people now.”
According to West, the Edwards Aquifer Authority was created to protect the spring flows, not to provide water to San Antonio.
“The Authority was set up to manage the aquifer and protect the springs,” said West. “We’ve all been debating how much water is available out of the aquifer since the 1950’s.”
GBRA petitioned the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to regulate the Edwards predicated on the fact that it’s an underground flowing spring. The state maintained their authority on groundwater and underground flowing springs, and the TCEQ agreed.
Then, in the 1980’s SAWS filed suit in district court and that court ruled against SAWS. GBRA felt they had no other alternative to try to protect the spring flows; they sought relief under the endangered species act.
GBRA thinks that the stakeholders throughout the Edwards Aquifer ecological water system could effectively move forward by forming cooperative agreements to handle the issues throughout the system.
“This is not a people versus critters issue only; it’s people versus people,” said West. “We have to find a balance because the senior water rights downstream depend on those spring flows. Take the spring flows away and the downstream senior rights are affected; then the upstream junior rights are affected and the entire system is impacted.”
The review by the SCTWAC will be presented to both the EAA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Public comments, either verbally or in writing, are encouraged.