San Antonio Wants Too Much of Our Groundwater

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In 2013, Owens Lake was the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. Photo taken on Aug. 26 courtesy of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which monitors daily dust pollution.

In 2013, Owens Lake was the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. Photo taken on Aug. 26 courtesy of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which monitors daily dust pollution.

The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has been trying to import groundwater from the Simsboro Aquifer — part of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer — in Milam County since 1998.

They are now on the verge of accomplishing that goal if the SAWS-Vista Ridge Consortium groundwater deal is approved by SAWS and the San Antonio City Council.

The Vista Ridge Consortium is a partnership between Spain-based Abengoa and Austin-based Blue Water Systems.

142 Miles of pipeline will transport water from  Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.

142 miles of pipeline will transport water from
Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.

Before deciding to pursue the current groundwater deal, San Antonio may have studied how Los Angeles solved its water problems. The parallels are eye-opening.

In the early 1900s, Los Angeles constructed an aqueduct — an above-ground pipeline — to import water from rural Owens Valley, more than 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

In 2014, San Antonio is attempting to construct a pipeline to import water from rural Burleson County, 143 miles north of San Antonio.

Both of the rural areas are similar in size – about 1,000 square miles.

I do not want to see Burleson County become like the now-barren Owens Valley, which experiences frequent dust storms (see top photo).

If the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District had been fulfilling its mission of “protecting and conserving the aquifers” in Milam and Burleson County, I wouldn’t be writing this note.

Let me explain.

All groundwater districts in Texas go through a five-year process to develop “desired future conditions (DFC).”  Just as the name suggests, the DFC is what the groundwater district desires an aquifer’s condition to be in 60 years.

For the Simsboro Aquifer in Burleson County, the groundwater source for the SAWS deal, the DFC is an average 300-foot drawdown of water-well levels. Near the well fields, 600-foot drawdowns will occur – and at least a 100-foot drawdown will impact more than 2,000 square miles.

Similar drawdowns were predicted for a failed 1998 SAWS deal to import 50,000 acre-feet per year of Simsboro groundwater from Alcoa land in Lee County.  Those predicted drawdowns prompted a Bastrop County water supply corporation executive to say in an interview reported in the July 2004 edition of Dollars & Sense: “If you went down to San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer and said I’m gonna draw down 100 feet over 1,400 square miles, those people would be coming to your funeral, because someone would hang you.”

In our case, our very own groundwater district thought those drawdowns were acceptable.

The DFCs are used by the Texas Water Development Board to determine the amount of groundwater that can be pumped so that the DFC is reached in 60 years – this number is called the MAG (modeled available groundwater).

In the case of the Burleson County Simsboro Aquifer, the MAG is about 48,000 acre-feet per year.

The SAWS/Vista Ridge deal is about equal to the MAG: 50,000 acre-feet (16,000,000,000 gallons) of Simsboro groundwater will be exported to San Antonio each year.

But our groundwater district has approved permits for much more Simsboro groundwater pumping than the MAG (see graph: the total permitted includes the SAWS/Vista Ridge 50,000 acre-feet per year.)

NOTE:  Permit data from records obtained through Open Records requests.

Permit data from records obtained through Open Records requests submitted by Curtis Chubb.

If groundwater pumping is greater than the MAG, the water-level declines will exceed the DFC and the aquifer will be depleted at a faster rate.

Now, let’s talk about one more aspect of the Simsboro Aquifer which has a lot to do with its sustainability – its recharge rate.

A simple but extremely critical rule is that an aquifer will be depleted if you pump more groundwater than the amount recharged by rain falling on the parts of the aquifer in contact with the land surface, also known as the outcrop. Just as your bank account will be depleted if you withdraw more money than you deposit.

According to University of Texas reports, the total recharge for the Simsboro in Burleson County is less than 12,000 acre-feet per year (see graph above). If the normal amount of groundwater is discharged to springs and rivers, only about 2,000 acre-feet per year of recharge will reach the aquifer’s storage areas.

Anyone can conclude from the previous facts that the Simsboro Aquifer in Burleson County cannot be sustained if 50,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater is exported to San Antonio.

But there are other cities and water marketers that contribute to the veritable siege of the Simsboro, which underlies 11 counties and is managed by five groundwater districts (all with different rules.)

Some of the largest planned pumpers of Simsboro groundwater are water marketer Forestar (45,000 acre-feet per year – Bastrop County;) water marketer End Op (56,000 acre-feet per year – Lee and Bastrop Counties;) water marketer Blue Water Systems (21,000 acre-feet per year – Burleson County – not dedicated to the SAWS deal;) cities of Bryan and College Station (pumping permits for 70,000 acre-feet per year – Brazos County,) and Alcoa (45,000 acre-feet per year of pumping permits – Milam County.)

There can be no question that if all or even most of the permitted and planned pumping occurs, the Simsboro will be depleted rapidly.

All I can hope for is that every person, city, and water-marketer wanting to use Simsboro groundwater will accept the responsibility for protecting and conserving the Simsboro for future generations.

If they don’t, the Simsboro Aquifer will suffer the same fate as the dying Ogallala Aquifer.

*Featured/top image: In 2013, Owens Lake was the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. Photo taken on Aug. 26 courtesy of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which monitors daily dust pollution.

Related Stories:

San Antonio’s Water Future: Who is Running SAWS? 

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

Conference Tackles Climate Change in San Antonio: No Longer ‘If,’ Now ‘When’

Documentary Showcases San Antonio’s ‘Green Solutions’ to ‘Water Blues’

 Conversation: SAWS Abandons Pipes, Redirects Focus to Desalination Plant

5 thoughts on “San Antonio Wants Too Much of Our Groundwater

  1. I would offer only one correction to Dr. Chubb’s excellent reporting and perspective. It is simply too important to overlook the impacts the Vista Ridge project in Burleson County will have on its neighbor, Lee County. Specifically, rather than being two counties over, in Bastrop County, as Dr. Chubb notes, the FORESTAR proposed project for 14.4 billion gallons per year (45,000 AFY, with only 12,000 AFY permitted) is entirely located in northeastern LEE COUNTY, just across the Burleson County line from Vista Ridge. And if the END OP permit request for 46,000 AFY is granted, End Op has contractually obligated itself to pump at least 30,000 AFY of that amount from Lee County as well. Bastrop County, our neighbor to the west, also will be impacted by drawdowns from these projects (End Op well field extends into Bastrop). As was the case over 10 years ago re the SAWS/Alcoa deal, citizens of Lee and Bastrop counties urgently request the citizens of San Antonio to ONCE AGAIN REJECT participation in the destruction of rural counties. Go to

  2. San Antonio wants too much of every water source in our vicinity. The annexation plan calls for parts of other counties. I think our growth plans need to center on using what we have adequately. We need to put a stop on the many leaks around town, create xeriscaping campaigns, and work on other projects that end wasteful water practices.

  3. An eye-opener! Thank you…

    Two questions raised by this article:
    What is market is served by the water marketers mentioned?

    What happens if the water marketers can’t deliver on their contract? Those recharge figures show they can’t sustain 50,000 acre-feet of delivery over the life of the contract.

    • Mr. Shorr – If I understand your question about the ‘market’ served by water marketers, the market is any individual, company, municipality that is willing to pay for the water.

      The water marketers are playing their role in our capitalistic society – but there has to be regulations in place which will ensure that our groundwater resources will not be depleted. When you hear respected hydrogeologists and groundwater attorneys advocate that all groundwater districts should adopt the 50-50 rule, the full force of what they plan to do hits you in the face. The 50-50 rule that is currently being used by the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District for the Ogallala Aquifer means that their goal is to have 50% of the Ogallala’s stored groundwater remaining at the end of 50 years. In essence, that groundwater district has acknowledged that they cannot prevent the Ogallala from being totally depleted.

      If water marketers plan to pump more than the recharge, the groundwater will have to come from the groundwater that used to be discharged to springs and rivers for environmental flows, from other aquifers which border the aquifer being over-pumped, and from the aquifer’s stored groundwater. El Paso has already admitted that they will deplete the Hueco Bolson Aquifer by over-pumping that aquifer (they call it “systematic depletion”).

      So, the over-pumping will deplete the aquifer starting first with the shallower areas, require groundwater pumps to be placed lower-and-lower in the wells making it so expensive that only water marketers will be able to access the groundwater (this will have tremendously detrimental effects on communities over the depleted aquifers), reduce the environmental flows of the rivers, and allow brackish water to take over more of the aquifer storage areas.

      I believe that it is our responsibility – actually our moral obligation – to preserve our aquifers for future generations. If water marketers or anyone else are allowed to over-pump our aquifers, those aquifers with slow recharge rates like the Simsboro will literally take hundreds of years to refill.

      The 28 member states of the European Union just adopted rules which require the pumping and natural discharge of aquifers to be less than the recharge rate. If they can act to ensure the sustainability of their aquifers for future generations, why can’t we?

  4. Speaking for the League of Independent Voters of Texas, I just want to thank Dr. Chubb for his passion, intelligence and clarity in writing about water policy for many years now. He is a good neighbor and has been trying to teach his groundwater district board how to be good neighbors to us in Lee and Bastrop counties.

    Bexar countians, we’re all counting on you! Please stand up for all of Texas!

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