Andy Hovorak walks through the metal detector with a basket of petitions at City Hall. Photo by Scott Ball.

The controversial Vista Ridge water pipeline, if completed, will pump 50,000 acre-feet/year of Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer groundwater from a well field located in Burleson County. The groundwater will have to be treated and then transported 142 miles through a five-foot wide pipeline to reach San Antonio.

“Ultimately, it’s the reliability of this water that becomes the tipping point,” San Antonio City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said about the Vista Ridge project in a recent San Antonio Express-News report.

If Nirenberg considers the groundwater’s reliability as the “tipping point,” the Vista Ridge project’s greatest weakness will be exposed since the groundwater supply is not reliable for the following reasons:

  1. The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater District that made the Vista Ridge project possible now has new directors. There is evidence that the new directors will not be as water-marketer friendly as their predecessors. For example, the new directors have already denied the Vista Ridge consortium’s request to extend the permit needed to transport the groundwater out of Burleson County; the existing transport permit will expire 16 years before the end of the Vista Ridge project’s contract with no assurance that it will be extended.
  2. The only hydrogeological study of the effects of the Vista Ridge project to be made public concluded that the excessive groundwater pumping will cause water well levels to drop up to 466 feet over 60 years. A collateral effect of this precipitous drop in water levels will be that shallow parts of the aquifers will dry up according to the study authored by George Rice.

The reason for the Vista Ridge project’s profound effects on the aquifers is that the primary source aquifers, the Carrizo and Simsboro, have extremely slow recharge rates. The total recharge rate for both aquifers is only 15,000 acre-feet per year while the Groundwater District has already granted permits to pump 122,000 acre-feet per year from the two aquifers – and adjacent districts have also approved large-scale pumping of the same aquifers.

In short, the excessive over-pumping will deplete the aquifers just as your bank account is depleted if you withdraw more than you deposit.

  1. When supporters of the venture continually state that the Vista Ridge project is “sustainable,” they are referring to the pumping being able to continue until the last drop of groundwater is removed from the aquifers – not the aquifers’ preservation.

In contrast, the “sustainable development” of aquifers means that the groundwater will be pumped in such a manner that it will not cause adverse environmental, social, or economic effects – and that the aquifers will be preserved for future generations.

The Vista Ridge project does not meet the standards of “sustainable development” of an aquifer. Instead, the Vista Ridge project’s pumping exceeds recharge by 330% and consequently will contribute to making groundwater inaccessible to people living above the aquifers. When the groundwater is no longer available to the local communities and the Groundwater District is either unwilling or unable to act to address the problem, I predict that the State of Texas will respond to the humanitarian and economic emergency by ordering the pumping of the aquifers to be reduced immediately and substantially; that order would encompass the Vista Ridge project.

  1. The Groundwater District’s management problems add another question mark about the reliability of Vista Ridge project’s groundwater. My recent studies discovered that the District apparently does not know which aquifers are being monitored by at least 25% of their monitoring wells. For example, its records indicate that Monitoring Well 25 is drilled into the Simsboro Aquifer. However, the Texas Water Development Board’s records state that Monitoring Well 25 is drilled into the Hooper Aquifer. Similar problems were identified for 19 of the District’s monitoring wells.

This problem with the monitoring wells is a critical one since instead of limiting the amount of pumping to sustain the aquifers, the Groundwater District relies totally on the monitoring wells to determine when the aquifers reach red-flag conditions at which time the District will cutback the amount of groundwater permitted for the Vista Ridge project and other permit holders. It is questionable if this action will prevent the depletion of the aquifers because the Vista Ridge project consortium fully expects to be granted new pumping permits to replace the cutback amount.

Together, the four reasons presented above support the conclusion that the Vista Ridge project groundwater is not reliable due to the unsustainable use of the aquifers and regulatory risks associated with the District.

There is no scenario that will result in the Vista Ridge project being able to reliably provide 50,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater to San Antonio for an extended period of time. The over-pumping of the aquifers will eventually lead to rules requiring that pumping be limited to the amount of recharge – an action that California took this year in response to the severe depletion of their aquifers. Other Texas groundwater districts already have management plans that require total pumping to be less than recharge because that is the only way aquifers can provide a reliable source of groundwater.

To request more information about the monitoring well studies and the hydrogeological report, please email Dr. Chubb at bluegold@centurylink.net.

*Top image: Andy Hovorak walks through the metal detector with a basket of signatures in opposition to the Vista Ridge project at City Hall.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Curtis Chubb is a Milam County landowner, and holds a doctorate from The Johns Hopkins University. He's been a groundwater journalist for 20 years.