State of the Aquifer
The Barton Springs Aquifer at the start of 2014 is –
REPLENISHED at last by the record rains of last October, which totaled more than 18 inches across much of the recharge zone. Most of the rain fell in just two storms, ending the severe drought that began in October 2010, the last time that the Aquifer was what you might call full.
The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District declared an Alarm Stage drought on November 15, 2012 when springflow declined to 38 cubic feet per second (“cfs”) and the water level in the Lovelady monitor well near South 1st St. and Stassney fell below 478.4 feet above sea level (“ft.-msl”). District permittees – public water supply systems serving communities such as Buda, Creedmoor, and Kyle, as well as industries and irrigators -- were required to reduce their water withdrawals by 20%. Critical Stage drought was declared on April 27, 2013, requiring a 30% reduction.
The District responded to the deepening drought by defining two new stages requiring more severe curtailments: Exceptional Stage drought, which would require a 40% reduction in pumping if springflow fell below 14 cfs or the level in the monitor well dropped below 457.1 ft.-msl, and an Emergency Response Period that would demand a 50% curtailment if Barton Springs flow got below 10 cfs, near its historic low. Such a severe drought would test the permittees’ and consumers’ ability to conserve water and the District’s ability to enforce the pumping restriction, as well as the ability of all life dependent on the Aquifer to survive.
The crisis was avoided when springflow had dropped to the 14 cfs threshold on October 8, 2013 and then the rain came on October 11. Characteristically for a karst aquifer riddled with caves, conduits, and sinkholes through which groundwater moves rapidly, the water level came up dramatically, increasing springflow to 65 cfs by October 24, when the District relaxed the pumping limitations to Alarm Stage, and to 89 cfs by November 14, when the board voted to declare the Aquifer drought over and end the restrictions. Water conservation, however, remains a constant aim of the District. (As many have pointed out, the rains that refilled the Aquifer did not fall farther west in the watershed of the Highland Lakes that are Austin’s water supply. So the drought and water use restrictions still continue for Austin Water Utility customers.)
We were lucky last fall, and the risk of water shortages may not return to the Aquifer for months. But drought will inevitably come back, speeded by global warming and ever-increasing water demand. The steps the District has taken to respond to the last drought will make us better prepared for the next one when it comes.
And the Aquifer is MANAGED sustainably by the Barton Springs Aquifer District to achieve a self-defined Desired Future Condition (“DFC”) of no less than 6.5 cfs of springflow from Barton Springs during a repeat of the drought of record, the most severe in memory. Such a level would be less than the lowest ever recorded during the great drought of the 1950’s but much more than the total cessation of flow projected to occur if pumping continued unabated at contemporary levels during a return of such a drought.
Unlike in the 1950’s, when the area’s population and water demand were much less, the Aquifer today supplies the domestic water needs of 70,000 people or more, as well as the industrial and irrigation needs of many employers. Meeting those human needs while also supplying the environmental needs of the Aquifer ecosystem, an important element of the Colorado River watershed and the sole habitat of two endangered species, is the District’s main challenge.
To sustain the ability of the Aquifer to meet all those demands even in drought, the District has put a cap on the historical permits that allow withdrawal of water under all conditions. After September 9, 2004, no more historical permits can be issued and the only new permits available other than for household wells are conditional permits allowing withdrawal of water only when the Aquifer is not in drought. Applicants for these conditional permits must prove that they have an alternative water supply that they can turn to when drought returns.
The cap on “firm yield” permits and the progressively more severe pumping limitations imposed as drought continues are meant to make it possible to maintain the DFC of 6.5 cfs in a return of a drought of record, an event that no longer seems unlikely, but inevitable. The rules are the basis of the District’s habitat conservation plan (“HCP”), now in its final stages of preparation before submission to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Although the plan will seek a permit for incidental “take” of the endangered salamanders caused by unavoidable depletion of springflow, the real aim is to avoid any “taking” of the creatures by preserving springflow at a level that will insure their survival, while also meeting basic human needs.
The competing human and environmental water demands have caused the District to look for alternative water supplies to meet some of those demands. Two multi-port monitor wells have been drilled to sample water from the Upper and Middle Trinity Aquifer beneath the Edwards formations. The District is also moving to explore the potential for desalination or aquifer storage and recovery (“ASR”) in the “bad water zone” east of Interstate 35. But the most plentiful and promising alternative source is the one that is closest to us: the wastewater that we are used to disposing of but now realize is too valuable to waste. A Working Group of local governments including the Aquifer District is proposing a regional study of wastewater management and reuse with the aim of turning a water quality problem into part of the water supply solution.
But the Aquifer is still THREATENED by residential and commercial land disturbance in the recharge and contributing zones, highway construction, excessive wastewater loading, and the diffuse contamination that comes from being located in an urban setting.
The boom in the Central Texas economy and population that slowed briefly during the recession that started in 2007 has come back at full speed, as everyone can see. While some of the growth has taken the form of new downtown housing and redevelopment such as the Mueller project, much of it has fed old-fashioned sprawl, including new subdivisions in the Aquifer contributing zone outside of Austin’s jurisdiction. Since the passage of the SOS Ordinance in 1992, a common development pattern has been to leapfrog outside of the City limits and extra-territorial jurisdiction into the unincorporated county or the jurisdiction of another city where the rules are laxer or nonexistent or to build on preexisting lots that are “grandfathered” and exempt from the requirements.
The biggest of the recent projects is Masonwood West, the former Hatchett Ranch on Hamilton Pool Road. The developer is proposing to develop more than 1,600 single-family lots, supplied with water from the former LCRA water line, now owned by the West Travis County Public Utility Agency. The Agency has said that it will require the developer to comply with the creek set-back requirements contained in an agreement between the LCRA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service governing the pipeline.
In the heart of Austin, only a few hundred yards from Barton Springs, the new Blue Bonnet Hills subdivision has been approved by the City staff under the rules for an “Urban Watershed” like Shoal or Waller Creek, instead of the SOS Ordinance, evidently because other such projects were allowed to get away with that although they fit the ordinance definition of being in the “Barton Springs Zone.” It seems that past mistakes were the justification for another one.
A long-dormant highway project, State Hwy. 45 SW across the heart of the recharge zone, has come back to life, revived by newly elected Hays and Travis County officials even though the road was removed from the Imagine Austin master plan. This project has been on the drawing board for 25 years and has often been the contentious subject of elections and litigation, as it may be again. A 1990 Consent Decree agreed to in federal court between the Barton Springs Aquifer District and the Texas Department of Transportation (“TxDOT”) imposes water quality protection requirements, but the Consent Decree would not apply if another agency besides TxDOT built the road. And those 1990-vintage water quality protections are not the best that we could do now. The District has accepted the invitation to be a partner in the environmental assessment under way to evaluate the potential environmental impact of the highway and its construction, as well as the transportation alternatives. The results are expected later this year.
One of the most serious threats to the Aquifer comes from a plan, not yet filed, by the City of Dripping Springs to expand its wastewater treatment plant and discharge the treated effluent to Onion Creek, the creek that provides the most recharge to the Aquifer of any. The proposed plant would be even bigger than the one serving the Belterra subdivision, the only one currently allowed to release into one of the recharge creeks. Dripping Springs’ proposal to discharge its wastewater just a few miles upstream from where it would recharge the Aquifer and could soon be drawn up in domestic wells and consumed without adequate treatment is not just a danger to public health, it is a waste of a precious resource in a dry land. The Aquifer District and others are urging the City to devise an alternative plan that will put the wastewater to a beneficial and nonpolluting use.
The Aquifer is DEFENDED by a broad coalition of Central Texans who recognize the irreplaceable value of a bountiful and clean groundwater resource to support human life and enjoyment, the economy, and the natural ecosystem. Although the Aquifer may still be under threat, the defenders are fighting back and working to insure that it can continue to support life and enjoyment in Central Texas 50 or 100 years from now.
The most effective, though expensive, means of defense has been to simply buy land or conservation easements on land in the contributing and recharge zones, sometimes with the aim of preventing damaging projects from occurring. Most recently, the Austin City Council approved spending $18 million to buy the land that would have become the Jeremiah Venture development near Buda. Earlier, a remarkable public-private coalition that included Austin, Hays County, the Hill Country Conservancy, and the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service acquired a conservation easement on the neighboring Dalmstrom Ranch to keep it as a working ranch, providing clean recharge to the Aquifer in perpetuity. While it is not possible to buy the entire watershed, that is sometimes the best way to protect the most vital parts.
Of course, Barton Springs still captures the imagination of Central Texans, for whom the reality of a cool, bountiful spring in the middle of a (usually) hot, dry city is something close to a miracle. Organizations such as the Austin Group of the Sierra Club, Save Barton Creek Association, Save Our Springs Alliance, and Friends of Barton Springs Pool are still on alert, and the defense of the Springs is still a cause that rallies broad support. It is a defense we will have to keep up for as long as we want the Springs to keep flowing.
---Contributed by Craig Smith <firstname.lastname@example.org>