An Oral History: War & Peace Over the Edwards Aquifer

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Water from The Blue Hole (above) issues from a large cavern and is now surrounded by an octagonal concrete and stone wall. Photo/caption courtesy of www.edwardsaquifer.net.

The San Antonio Springs of the Edwards Aquifer are located mostly in the Incarnate Word community near Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue. Photo/caption courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt / www.edwardsaquifer.net.

Three years ago, the undeclared Edwards Aquifer water war came to an end after a half century of regional conflict that pitted San Antonio and dozens of regional entities against one another in a feud that divided generations of neighbors.

For decades, San Antonio, as the largest user of aquifer water, was the most resented in a world of self-serving rivalries among the region’s agricultural interests, small towns and area counties, river authorities and water districts, downstream users, and environmentalists.

For most of those years, there was no such thing as water conservation. Regulations controlling pumping from the aquifer did not exist. Species were not carefully documented, much less protected as endangered. Spring flows in times of drought were not guaranteed. All parties believed their right to unlimited ground water was, literally,a God-given right enshrined in the Texas Constitution. Science was an afterthought, mostly mistrusted.

The war over pumping rights really broke into the open after the historic drought of the 1950s and endured until 2011 when the 39 different warring factions, or regional stakeholders, came together and reached consensus on a habitat-protection accord known as the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP).

(Click here to download the 414-page EARIP document.)

I’ve been an eyewitness to the conflict since 1989, and over the years I came to know most if not all of the combatants. I never really thought of the long-running regional feud as a war until Tuesday when I drove to Texas State University in San Marcos, home to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, and listened as many of the veterans of that war relived the conflict, year by year, battle by battle, and like veterans of others wars coming together for reunions, now gathered to reminisce and declare their friendship and mutual respect for one another.

Robert Gulley

Robert Gulley

The occasion was the day-long program, “History of the Edwards Aquifer Dispute: A View from the Trenches,” sponsored by the online Texas Water Journal. The morning program was moderated by Robert Gulley, perhaps the single most important force in regional water history alongside U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton, the Sierra Club and the Endangered Species Act itself.

Gulley, a former Justice Department attorney with a speciality in natural resource disputes, was the executive director of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Program and the mediator for the EARIP.

"Heads Above Water: the Inside Story of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program," by Robert L. Gulley. Publisher: Texas A&M University Press (January 21, 2015).

“Heads Above Water: the Inside Story of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program,” by Robert L. Gulley. Publisher: Texas A&M University Press (January 21, 2015).

Gulley also happens to be the author of the newly released book, “Heads Above Water: the Inside Story of the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program,” his account of how 39 different stakeholders finally came together after years of negotiation and agreed upon a plan for management and protection of the Edwards Aquifer and protection of eight different species that inhabits underground waters and springs and are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

For anyone with even a passing interest in water and how it touched on almost every aspect of life and work in San Antonio, and for anyone with an opinion for or against the multi-billion dollar Vista Ridge pipeline deal approved by San Antonio’s City Council last year, Gulley’s book is a must read. It’s the first comprehensive account of the region’s water history that I’ve read, told in narrative style that engages the reader in a way no textbook can. All of us are entitled to our opinion, of course, but if want your opinion to be an informed one, read the book.

It’s no exaggeration to write that the EARIP has protected San Antonio and a sprawling expanse of South and Central Texas and the more than two million people who occupy the space from the certain prospect of federal authorities taking control of the Edwards Aquifer and regional water use and management, much as another federal judge decades earlier used his power to take over the state’s dysfunctional prison system.

Gulley himself uses the war metaphor in his book, which is far more than an account of how the soft-spoken water expert and mediator brought together around a single table representatives of 39 regional entities that once wouldn’t share the same room if given a choice.

Part one of the book gives a lively history of the decades and events that led up to the moment when the looming realities of the Endangered Species Act and fear of federal oversight finally herded Texans of all political persuasions dependent on the Edwards Aquifer to come together and find common ground.

That newfound unity, of course, could erode in times of future drought and critical pumping cutbacks that now guide aquifer management, but it seems more likely that with each passing year that the EARIP in place, a spirit of regional cooperation and interdependence will take root where suspicion and mistrust once ruled.

A map of conservation easements on the Edwards Aquifer.

A map of conservation easements on the Edwards Aquifer.

“What we want to do this day is create an oral history,” Gulley told the gathered audience Tuesday morning. As the day progressed and various speakers mentioned protagonists in the long running war who have since died, Gulley’s goal seemed not only worthy but also timely.

Gulley held forth in a solo presentation of events as they unfolded after World War II through 1989, and then welcomed a panel of six people who played key roles in events from 1989-1993, politically tumultuous years that brought the water war to a head in federal court and eventually resulted in the Texas Legislature passing the first laws regulating pumping from the Edwards Aquifer.

All were key players in the drama two decades ago:

Former Texas Water Commission Chairman John Hall; Mike Spear, the former regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Celina Romero, the former general counsel  for the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission; Luana Buckner, the former general manager of the Medina County Underground Water Conservation District and today the chairperson of the Edwards Aquifer Authority; Weir Labatt, former San Antonio City Council member; and John Specht, former general manager for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

Each panelist offered remarkable recollections and compelling stories.

“This whole thing started with the drought of the ’50s, a severe drought, and the Comal Springs going dry and the Guadalupe River going dry well below Seguin,” said Specht. “That weighed heavily on the Edwards board.

“As a result of that, the Canyon Reservoir was filled in 1964 and from that point on there was the creation of the Edwards Underground Aquifer Authority, and that was really pushed because people were really concerned about spring flow and there began to be some concern in San Antonio about the availability of enough water to carry the city forward into the next century.”

It wasn’t until the late 1960s, Specht said, that Texas’ elected officials and others began to grasp “the science of aquifer recharge.”

Image courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

Image courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt.

The Texas Constitution was built in part on bad science or the absence of science, that is, that 19th century proposition that ground water and surface water were different kinds of water. While all but two states now treat all water as a public resource, Texas continues to treat surface water as a state resource while ground water belongs to the individuals whose land lies above the water. New laws have imposed pumping limits, but current science has not been allowed to alter 250 years of state law and tradition.

Many stories were told and retold Tuesday, including San Antonio’s twice-failed effort to convince voters to build the Applewhite Reservoir on land now occupied by the Toyota truck manufacturing plant. The city spent more than $40 million on the reservoir’s construction before the project was finally abandoned.

Matters for the region came to a head starting in 1991 when the Sierra Club filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asserting that it was failing to protect endangered species by not imposing aquifer pumping limits that would prevent the Comal and San Marcos Springs from going dry in periods of drought.

Judge Bunton ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, and made it clear that if the state could not manage its resources the federal government would come in and do the job for Texas. That spurred the Texas Legislature in 1993 to create the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) and end the era of rule of capture regardless of its consequences.

Interestingly, a key player in the drafting of that legislation was Robert Puente, then a Democratic state representative from San Antonio and now the president and CEO of SAWS, San Antonio’s water utility that today is considered a national model for water conservation and management.

Creation of the EAA, as the panel noted, failed to solve the problem of species protection. That led to the formation of the working group in 2006 led by Gulley that eventually produced the EARIP. Few people believed Gulley could successfully navigate the regional politics, mistrust, and at times, scientific ignorance that prevailed at the time. People expected the process to fail, as so many efforts before had failed, and then it would be on to the next battle in the endless war, the next lawsuit, the next session of the Legislature, the next regional effort.

Gulley, however, proved all doubters wrong. How he did it, step by patient step over many years is best understood by reading his book. What finally led everyone to accept the reality that the aquifer could only be protected by common agreement? There is no doubt the looming shadow of the federal government gave Gulley a cudgel others before him lacked.

“We had some situations back in those days that just weren’t solvable,” said Labatt, who was appointed to key state and federal water conservation and management oversight positions after he left San Antonio’s City Council. “There was no way this issue was going to be solved without some hammer, and that hammer tuned out to be the Endangered Species Act. And for that I am grateful. We had a gun to our head, and if we hadn’t done something like this we would not be sitting here today, patting ourselves on the back.”

This article barely skims the conversation and dialogue that unfolded Tuesday. A complete record of the day will soon be available online. Once the videos are posted, the Rivard Report will share the links with readers.

Featured/top image: The San Antonio Springs, fed by the Edwards Aquifer, are located mostly in the Incarnate Word community near Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue. Pictured is the largest spring, known as the Blue Hole. Photo/caption courtesy of Gregg Eckhardt/www.edwardsaquifer.net.

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Commentary: The Case for the SAWS-Vista Ridge Deal

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