Younger generations and newcomers to the South Texas region have enjoyed relative peace when it comes to water wars. A little more than 20 years ago, however, the region was a battleground for water rights and management.
The Edwards Aquifer, one of the world’s most productive artesian wells that lies below eight counties, was the region’s only source of water for residential, commercial, and agricultural use. San Antonio was viewed with distrust, a sprawling metropolitan area rapidly developing with little regulation over the aquifer’s sensitive recharge zone.
Aquifer flow also fed the Comal and San Marcos Springs, home to endangered species and vulnerable in cycles of drought.
The surrounding counties viewed San Antonio as the region’s water hog and were not interested in having farmers and other industrial users forced to accept pumping limits.
Mark Twain could have been thinking of the people living over the Edwards Aquifer when he is said to have remarked, “Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”
Until the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) was created by the Texas Legislature in 1993, the aquifer was essentially a free-for-all. If you could dig a well, you could pump the water. When the endangered species that relied on the aquifer’s springs were threatened by over-pumping, the Sierra Club sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prompting U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton to order the State and the region to deal with the problem or face federal regulation and sanctions.
For 20 years the EAA has been a steward of the aquifer, issuing pumping permits, studying the aquifer’s relationship to surrounding ecosystems, and assisting in the implementation of the Habitat Conservation Plan in Texas’ first conservation and reclamation district. But its present-day successes are the result of hard-fought political battles within the district and at the State level.
On Tuesday, Oct. 11, key players in the EAA’s past and future will convene for Water Forum VII: A Legacy – Edwards Aquifer Authority at 20 Years at the Historic Pearl Stable, located at 307 Pearl Pkwy. Individual tickets are $100, table sponsorships begin at $1,500. Click here for more information.
The two-hour program will begin at 11 a.m. after an open format exhibition of water technology, programs, and organizations related to protecting and managing water in South Texas at 10 a.m.
Joe Nick Patoski, a Texan journalist, author, and biographer, will deliver a keynote speech after remarks from Mayor Ivy Taylor, Michael Beldon, the EAA board’s inaugural chair, and Michael Burke, founder and chair of San Antonio Clean Technology Forum.
A panel discussion will follow, featuring State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26), outgoing State Rep. Doug Miller (R-73), State Rep. Tracy King (D-80), EAA Board Chair Luana Buckner, and EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard will serve as moderator.
About two million people and thousands of farmers pump water from the aquifer. Over the last decade, San Antonio and regional municipalities have begun to diversify their water supply and undertake ambitious water conservation policies and programs.
At the time of the EAA’s foundation, “San Antonio was the largest metropolitan city in the U.S. that had a sole source of water: the (Edwards) aquifer,” Miller told the Rivard Report.
The aquifer is now one of seven water sources that SAWS pulls from with several more major projects, including the Brackish Groundwater Desalination plant and the Vista Ridge pipeline project, in the works.
Nearly 100 employees at the EAA headquarters near downtown San Antonio monitor ground water permits for the 572,000 acre feet of pumpable water in the aquifer. The EAA is working with regional stakeholders to implement a recharge zone-wide abandoned well identification program, and has found 27 over-pumpers in 2015 so far. It’s a well-oiled regulatory and research machine, but it wasn’t always that way. The early days of the EAA were marked with conflict when, for the first time, people had to start working together across arbitrary political boundaries to manage a critical resource.
Miller was elected to New Braunfels City Council in 1987 and became mayor in 1988 at the age of 33. In 1990 he was recruited by the City of New Braunfels to work as lobbyist who handles water issues in Austin. In this role, he worked closely with lawmakers during legislative sessions in the early ’90s on what would become the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act of 1993. A legal battle surrounding the board’s structure – which found that the appointed board was a violation of the Voting Rights Act – delayed the EAA’s operation until June 1996. Contentious elections were held across the district in 1997 to elect the new 17-member board.
“The Edwards (Aquifer Authority) was a new type of entity that now could assert some control over the management and appropriation of water,” said Miller, who was appointed to the first board and then elected with a wide margin over two other challengers during the first elections. “That authority was (and still is) unique in Texas. Nothing else was like that.”
Miller admits he and other board members played a role in the early turmoil, resisting what he saw as disproportionality of water consumption across the district.
At the time, the combined population of New Braunfels and San Marcos was less than 60,000, according to the United States Census Bureau.
“We didn’t have any clout with the legislature but (the) Endangered Species Act gave us the strength we needed to forge ahead,” Miller said.
Miller and others credit Michael Beldon, the first chair of the EAA board and former chair of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the Endangered Species Act lawsuit as the unifying “outsider” perspectives that brought the battling municipalities together to balance out their needs.
“The threat became real (when we realized) the federal funding for all types of things – military, housing, transportation – could dry up as a result of that lawsuit,” Miller said. “I laid down the sword and shield and, if you will, the wall that I had built. … Mike (Beldon) came in without all that baggage.”
He recalled Beldon telling the board at the time, “You fought the good fight and now it’s time to make this thing work.”
What followed was an education and awareness campaign to drive home the point that water had to be dealt with regionally and cooperatively.
“Enough people on the board figured out that we have a job to do and it’s not about what’s good for me, it’s going to be what’s good for us,” recalled Beldon, who received the Water for Life Award during the 2015 San Antonio Clean Technology Forum event.
Beldon also cites the Sierra Club’s lawsuit and Judge Bunton’s action as the awakening San Antonio needed.
“We were looked at as people that didn’t do anything (in the way of diversification and conservation). We just wanted to pump from the aquifer,” Beldon said. “(The lawsuit) was a vehicle to get San Antonio to the table. Bunton said, ‘You guys fix it, or I’m going to fix it.’ That brought enough pressure to get the warring sides together.”
Board members even went on retreats across the recharge zone together to experience their colleagues’ districts and understand their challenges.
“(The EAA) ought to be a model for the state and we’re not,” Beldon said. “We should be.”
I asked Miller what he thinks the main barrier to spreading this kind of regional, collaborative water management practices to other aquifers in the state is.
“Part of it’s control,” Miller said. “It’s hard to control these local districts to get them to do what some legislators want them to do.”
There’s a movement at the State level to centralize authority in Austin, he added.
EAA to Add Emphasis on Water Quality
The EAA is currently monitoring 2,135 ground water permits that can be leased and sold by permitholders in perpetuity within the district. Pumping from the Edwards Aquifer is capped at 572,000 acre feet. SAWS holds the most with more than 286,000 acre feet, including municipal and irrigation permits. New Braunfels Utilities holds the second most with more than 9,000 acre feet.
Ruiz started working with the EAA as a program manager for public affairs in 2006 and was selected for the open general manager position in 2012.
“It’s basically a record keeping process that allows us to always know how much water is out there and who has it,” Ruiz told the Rivard Report last week.
“The first 20 years (were) so focused on implementing the permitting system – getting the quantity right,” Ruiz said. “We’ve achieved a real high level of certainty in that. … The next 20 years we need to make sure we protect the investment of the first 20 years. Quantity without quality doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Proposed EAA rule changes, which would reduce the amount of “micromanaging” the EAA performs to make sure permit holders and property owners are in compliance, are currently up for public comment. Hearings will be held on Oct. 6, 18, and 19. Click here to download the rules with tracked changes. The public comment period closes at 5 p.m. on Nov. 10 and then goes to the board for approval.
Where there is regulation, there is resistance, but Ruiz has tried to reach out to the organizations and companies that the EAA regulates to build stronger alliances and awareness.
“When a company asks us, ‘Why do I need to do this?’ The answer can’t be, ‘because that’s what the rules say,’” Ruiz said. “There needs to be an understanding of our mission and why we do what we do.”
The EAA has started to actively engage landowners in the recharge zone through proactive stewardship practices in collaboration with the City of San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, which is funded through a one-eighth cent sales tax that has been repeatedly and overwhelmingly approved by voters.
Ruiz noticed long ago the “tremendous sense of ownership in the land (in Texas). That’s where the fight over water has most often come from. The other side of that Texas spirit is a strong sense of responsibility in that ownership.
“The work we do today will not give us instant gratification,” he said. “We have to think of it more in terms of legacy.”
That legacy and more be explored next Tuesday at Water Forum VII: A Legacy – Edwards Aquifer Authority at 20 Years.
Top image: The Seco Sinkhole, located in western Medina County. Photo courtesy of the Edwards Aquifer Authority.