New Year Message from Craig Smith

A message from SBCA Board Vice President, Craig Smith–

I hope that you are having a happy New Year.  At the start of 2019, I’d like to recap of the challenges to the health of our drinking water aquifers in the past year and suggest how I think that they could be met.  It is my aspiration, not prediction, for the future. SBCA is glad to have your help in the effort to reach it.

In the past year, like every year before, it seems, the drinking water aquifers of Central Texas – the bountiful Edwards Aquifer that curves from Salado through Austin and San Antonio west to Brackettville, and the Trinity Aquifer beneath and west of the Edwards  —- have been under stress from the growing population living over and drinking from them. While growth was once welcomed as an unquestionable benefit, more and more people are becoming aware of the risks that our aquifers and other water supplies could become polluted or depleted as a result of the growth, which would impair the economy and quality of life that brought us all here.

In nearly every situation, there are smart ways to accommodate the growth while preserving the natural values.  To find our way to those solutions, we have to engage in the kind of inclusive community dialogue that has been used before to address environmental challenges like those we face now.

Here is my recap of the current challenges. 

Wastewater Management

The greatest recent threat to the health of the aquifers is the increased willingness to allow the discharge of treated sewage, generated by the thousands of new homes on the western edge of the urban corridor, into the Hill Country creeks that recharge the aquifers with little filtering of the pollution.  Long prohibited in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone where surface water enters the aquifer directly through caves and fissures, and formerly also unknown in the contributing zone where water flows down the creeks to become recharge, the discharge of wastewater has both old and new dangers for the aquifers.  It is long known that wastewater, even after conventional treatment, has levels of nutrients far above the natural loads of the creeks, which causes proliferation of algae and depletion of the dissolved oxygen in the water.  We are more recently aware of the risks of new contaminants unique to wastewater, including pharmaceuticals and hormones, that could have undetermined effects and are not detected or addressed in ordinary sewage treatment.

Despite the risks, the sensible but non-binding inhibition against discharging sewage in the aquifer contributing zones has begun to erode.  First, the Belterra subdivision, just across the Travis-Hays County line, received a permit to discharge its wastewater into Bear Creek, after a vigorous contest at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  Strict requirements were put into the final permit, so that no discharge has actually occurred so far.

But that regulatory resolve has relaxed.  Late in 2018, the City of Dripping Springs won a bigger permit from TCEQ to discharge to Onion Creek, the contributor of the greatest amount of recharge to the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, despite strong opposition.  A settlement agreement with the Barton Springs Aquifer District and some of the other opponents assures that there will be no discharge until the treatment plant’s capacity grows to four times its current production, and a wastewater commission will seek ways to avoid any discharge even after that capacity is reached.

However, it is plain that the regulatory protection of the aquifers has weakened in the current climate of laxity at both the federal and state levels.  Other discharge applications are currently pending, including one to discharge to Barton Creek and one by the little town of Blanco asking for a permit to dump its waste into the pristine river for which it is named and is the basis of its tourist and retirement economy.  Without state standards that are adequate to protect the water quality of the creeks, each of these applications must be fought one at a time.  Often the best achievable outcome is a settlement that puts conditions and strict standards on the permitted discharge.

Save Barton Creek Association and our partners are part of the No Dumping Sewage Coalition, continuing to work on these challenges.

Groundwater Pumping

Just as the growing population has increased the amount of wastewater that must be managed, it has increased the demand for water for drinking, watering lawns, and other residential and commercial uses.  With the firm yield pumping of the Edwards Aquifer capped in both the Barton Springs and the San Antonio segments, the demand has recently turned to the Trinity Aquifer.

Two contested pumping applications are currently pending at the Barton Springs Aquifer District that ask for permits to withdraw large amounts of groundwater from the lightly used Trinity, which is generally produces less water than the Edwards.  The water is meant to supply demand in the IH-35 urban corridor or other unstated uses.  Nearby landowners, many of who moved from cities because they prize the rural beauty and lifestyle, have objected that the pumping could deplete their own wells.

The San Antonio Water System and others are looking to meet their customers’ demand by importing water through expensive pipelines from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to the east.  The people who live in those areas are wondering what that could mean for them and their long-term future.

Land Development and Highways

The engine of this increased water demand and wastewater production is, of course, the booming economy of Central Texas that is attracting hundreds of new residents every week.  Many of them are also drawn here by the same natural beauty that the defenders want to protect.  The subdivisions where they settle continue to proliferate, often outside of Austin’s jurisdiction and subject to less stringent requirements.  I used to know their ironic names: Caliterra, The Headwaters, Scenic Greens, but I can no longer keep up with them all.  The new Hill Country residents must have highways, such as the nearly finished State Hwy. 45 SW and the proposed Oak Hill Parkway, to bring them into the city.

These new Central Texans do not mean to harm the environment, even if that is the effect.  The problem is caused by following the prevailing suburban development pattern that does not seem to have changed much in 50 years, which disturbs far more land than is needed for the homes, requires many miles of roads, and pays little attention to the effects on the watersheds.

Climate Change

As if the other challenges were not enough, there is no longer any reasonable doubt that the global climate is warming, fueled by man-made greenhouse gases that exceed the highest historic and even post-glacial levels.  Predictions are that the coming years, starting right away, will bring both longer droughts and greater floods than we have planned for.  The updated historic rainfall map known as Atlas 14 shows that many existing developments, including expensive subdivisions, are already subject to flooding in the increasingly common heavy rains.  Just as disturbing as that is the increased chance of another multi-year drought, perhaps longer than the drought of the 1950’s that is still deemed to be the “drought of record.”

Solutions

So, what are the solutions to these challenges?

For the management of wastewater, there are several technical options that are less damaging than direct discharge to waterways.  Land application, through drip or spray irrigation, is the one that has been the prevailing technology in the Hill Country until recently.  Treated wastewater can also be reused for a variety of purposes that do not require drinking-quality water, notably landscape irrigation.  This can convert what was considered a nuisance into a valuable commodity in a dry land.  On a subdivision or neighborhood scale, wastewater can be treated in low-density suburban areas on a distributed basis, without the expensive centralized infrastructure that is needed to bring it all to a central plant for treatment before disposal or reuse.

To protect our aquifers from depletion, we could determine the sustainable yield of each one: the amount that it could be expected to produce in a recurrence of the drought of record, with a safety margin to protect springs and allow for the warming climate.  This has been done for the Barton Springs and San Antonio segments of the Edwards Aquifer and was the basis for the caps that the Barton Springs Aquifer District and the Edwards Aquifer Authority have put on “firm yield,” pumping, the amount that may be withdrawn from the Edwards in a severe drought.  Similar determinations could be made for each of the aquifers and then translated into pumping caps to avoid the consequences of depletion, including springflow reduction and interference with existing wells.  Drought contingency plans and monitor wells could assure that critical water levels are not reached.  Additional demands would have to be met by more efficiently using existing supplies and finding alternative sources, such as rainwater, reused wastewater, and brackish groundwater that can be desalinated.  Any proposal for importing water needs to carefully consider and respect the needs of the source region.

Our ever-growing population could be mainly accommodated within the footprint of our existing cities and towns, without continuing to gobble up more and more of the countryside, if we abandoned unsuitable development patterns.  Many previous community visioning efforts, from Envision Central Texas to Imagine Austin, have laid out a plan of denser, better connected urban centers along IH-35, surrounded by self-sustaining towns and lots of open space, as the region’s preferred growth pattern.  We could, and have, set aside some of our most prized areas, including riparian corridors and spring recharge features, to protect them from disturbance because they are essential to preserving the natural processes.

Global warming is an unprecedented challenge to our survival as the human species. While it will undoubtedly change the way we will live in ways that we cannot foresee now, one sensible response to the immediate prediction of longer droughts and bigger floods is to be prepared to capture and store some of the floodwater for use during the droughts. Aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) is a system for harvesting surplus groundwater or surface water during wet times and injecting it into a less-used aquifer, from which it can be withdrawn without significant loss when needed to supplement current supplies. The San Antonio Water System, City of Buda, Barton Springs Aquifer District, and others are exploring the feasibility of ASR in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, Trinity Aquifer, and the saline portion of the Edwards Aquifer east of the “bad water line.”  ASR has two big advantages over a reservoir on the surface: it does not require flooding (and therefore buying) large areas of valuable land, and it is immune from evaporation, which in summer can consume more water from a lake than a city uses.

How To Get There

So how do we get to these sustainable solutions?  Because that is a question of our collective will, it can only be accomplished through dialogue, an honest and inclusive exchange about interests and values and practical ways to achieve them.  There are successful local examples of that kind of dialogue, in which a structured and sustained effort to find consensus has produced a solution, or at least a partial solution, that has endured.  These could become the models for addressing each of our challenges.

One example is the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan (BCCP), the plan that led to the lifting of most of the development restrictions of the Endangered Species Act in western Travis County in exchange for the creation of preserves for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, now recovered enough to be removed from the list.  The BCCP has certainly not stopped growth, as some opponents predicted, but the preserves that were created have become some of the last open space near to Austin, enclaves of nature on the edge of the city.

Another example is the Regional Water Quality Protection Plan for the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer, in which 13 local governments, backed by a wide variety of stakeholder groups, came together to support a plan to set aside preserve land and concentrate new growth in the existing developed areas in order to protect the creeks and the aquifer.  While it did not address all of the important issues, notably omitting wastewater management, which was not seen as a big problem at the time, and it has not been followed equally in every jurisdiction, the Regional Plan has nevertheless remained the guiding vision of how the Hill Country can grow and still protect its natural heritage.

I suggest that these examples could be followed in order to build agreement on how to deal with each of the conflicts between growth and the environment.  Through that approach, I think that we can protect our aquifers and water supplies even as the region continues to grow.

-Craig Smith

SBCA, Vice President of the Board