Less groundwater, more demand: Can Texas quench its thirst?

Hogan Gore
Austin American-Statesman

Leaving a mess of sludge, a nearly 900-foot hole in the ground and a bill north of $40,000, the groundwater well Mike Heck drilled on his property in Williamson County this month did not come with a guarantee. 

But after the pump he relied on for more than a decade unexpectedly quit delivering water to his home from the Trinity Aquifer in July, Heck had limited options to secure a new water source. 

Once the drilling for the new well was complete, the answer as to why the water had stopped flowing became clear: The aquifer’s water level had dropped by roughly 200 feet underneath Heck’s property. 

“I knew that the pump might fail. That's what I sort of expected. As far as the well to go dry, no, I didn't see that coming,” Heck said. “Now all I think about is getting water to my house.” 

More of a bellwether than an outlier, Heck’s situation is emblematic of the increasing concern Texans face in securing access to water amid a struggle with overpumping, regulatory underfunding, a population boom and a current drought rivaling the state’s worst. 

And though the drought that ran from 1950 to 1957 remains as the record, and a drought beginning in 2011 set "new standards" as the driest and hottest consecutive 12-month period in state history, according to the Texas Water Development Board, the current drought has been compared to both.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday, about 95% of the state is under drought conditions, with more than half experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.

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With multiple factors contributing to an overall loss of groundwater, well owners across Texas also find themselves under different rules and mandates from one county to the next as the political bodies charged with local oversight of aquifers — groundwater conservation districts — are optional. 

In Williamson County, which lacks a groundwater conservation district, well owners experiencing drawdowns are hard-pressed to find reasons the water has stopped flowing.

“That's one of those areas where the average individual has no real way to understand what's happening in the ground underneath him and no one to really call,” said Gerry Rymes, whose property abuts Heck’s on Buck Bend Road west of Georgetown. 

Gerry Rymes visits the water tank he installed after years of groundwater decline.

Thankfully for Heck, Rymes’ previous water well issues that resulted in him installing an above-ground water storage tank meant the two were able to run hundreds of feet of hose, connecting Heck to an alternative supply as he waited for water deliveries and an available driller to install the new well.

Meanwhile, across the county line, the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District in Bell County has been keeping tabs on the region’s groundwater supply. 

With unceasing well permit requests, incoming housing developments and unlimited pumping to the district’s south, data from one of the state’s leading groundwater authorities show water levels in the Trinity Aquifer to be in constant decline.    

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“Whether they were pumping real heavy or not, the regional drawdown because of so many wells is about 12 feet per year,” said Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater district.

According to Aaron, the district has about 4,000 active residential wells. And while the district conducted a study showing that a family of four can operate on 300 gallons a day, many individual users in the region are outpacing that number by 17,000 gallons daily.

As a result, and coupled with a dry heat bringing conditions second only to the 2011 drought in state history, more and more well owners are having to dig deeper to source water. 

After his new well was drilled, some of Mike Heck's property was covered in mud that came from the nearly 900-foot hole.

“And it isn't stopping. It's exactly what we experienced in 2011, 2012 and 2013,” Aaron said of constantly fielding permits for lowering pumps and drilling new wells. 

U.S. Drought Monitor data show regions across the state experiencing extreme or exceptional drought declined from 61% to 43% and 26% to 12%, respectively, in the past week, thanks to recent rains. And though that precipitation did slightly alleviate the severity of the state's drought conditions, the effect on aquifer water levels will be limited in the Trinity as only 4% to 5% of rainfall ends up recharging it. 

With that in mind, Aaron is most concerned with continuing to develop the science and ability to accurately depict the region’s water outlook, as well as convey the importance of conservation to the area’s hundreds of thousands of new residents. 

Population growth over the past decade has affected the whole of Texas, but of the nearly 4 million people who have moved to the state since 2010, many have settled throughout the central Hill Country.

Bell, Bastrop, Travis, Hays and Williamson counties all had sizable population increases from 2010 to 2020, ranging from 20% to more than 40%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

In Williamson County, a 44% population jump to 609,000 residents transformed once-rural areas into multiple housing developments with large homes, nearly all reliant on groundwater sourced from the Trinity and Edwards aquifers.  

When his well quit pumping out groundwater, Mike Heck had to invest in another with no guarantee on how long the water at the lower level will keep flowing.

“It's not necessarily that the population has grown, but the population, the new culture, the new people moving here do not have an understanding of water conservation like the Texan of the 1950s, ❜60s and ❜70s,” Aaron said. 

At the same time, many groundwater conservation districts lack the funding needed for science capable of identifying the best local solutions to help with water sustainability. Additionally, the 101 districts across the state directly responsible for looking after aquifer conditions do so at the hyperlocal level. 

“In some ways, it's sort of a Byzantine system because the aquifers that we manage run from the Arkansas border all the way down to Mexico, and yet we're chopped up and regulating based on political boundaries,” said Jim Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, covering Bastrop and Lee counties.

There is a real benefit, however, to maintaining localized control, Totten said, as the characteristics of aquifers and surrounding environmental factors vary greatly from region to region. 

Coordination and communication are also common among the districts, as they are heavily involved in creating the state’s water plan every five years in coordination with 16 regional planning groups that are organized to provide a broader and more comprehensive view of groundwater impact.

Through that inventory process outlining the state’s groundwater supply, anticipated future water needs and the conditions necessary to meet them, many conservation districts are forced to pick and choose how they will fight aquifer degradation as districts are totally reliant on ad valorem taxes, permit fees and grants to finance both operations and data collection.

“Even though the state requires groundwater districts to meet and develop these planning goals, desired future conditions, they don't provide any funding for districts to do that,” said Vanessa Puig-Williams, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas Water Program. “I would describe it as an unfunded mandate.”   

'Not very well-funded'

The Texas House Committee on Natural Resources has prioritized during the legislative interim the groundwater conservation districts' well-being and availability of resources.  

“A number of these groundwater districts are candidly not very well-funded,” said Rep. Tracy King, D-Laredo, the committee’s chair. “They need a source of revenue in order to do the proper scientific studies so they can evaluate these permits and be fair to everyone involved.” 

Additionally, the question of how to sustainably handle the state’s dependence on groundwater as some areas remain locally unregulated continues to be an issue.

Texas groundwater conservation district map.

“Areas where there is groundwater, but there is no district, generally speaking, we're unable to get the level of support to create it,” King said. “They either don't want to pay those (taxes), or they just don't want the government telling them how much water they can use.” 

The Natural Resources Committee, charged with a host of obligations related to Texas’ water, is also keen to learn more on the effects of large water transfer projects, such as the Vista Ridge project. 

The project, with a pipeline delivering groundwater from Lee County to San Antonio, has resulted in aquifer level declines throughout the area, said Totten, the Lost Pines district's general manager. 

In September, Totten expects to receive data outlining the effects of the current drought, but he anticipates a continued emphasis on the water moving to San Antonio. 

“Most of our monitoring right now is really currently focused on the impacts we're still seeing coming across from the Vista Ridge project,” he said.

By 2070, water demand in the state is expected to require an additional 1.6 million acre-feet per year when compared with today, according to the 2022 Texas State Water Plan. Over the same time, groundwater levels are projected to decline by 2.9 million acre-feet.

For Aaron, the general manager of the Clearwater district in Bell County, the current groundwater conditions and the future outlook are proof that conservation efforts such as fixing water infrastructure and leak detection, having less concern with landscaping optics and an awareness that water is a valuable resource could make a real difference.

"I firmly believe it's never too late,“ Aaron said. "But the amount of water that people are using, they're just consuming like it's a promise, it's a guarantee.”