By SEAN BATURA
Water conservation officials expect the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) to announce new water restrictions in early February as severe drought affects Hays County. But that’s not all there is to it.
Local water experts say the present conditions, if unabated, stand to increase harmful bacteria in local waterways, further threaten already endangered species, restrict recreational water access, grind farming to a halt, and even dry up the San Marcos Springs.
“(The San Marcos Springs water flow) routinely is up around 150 to 160 cubic feet per second,” said Associate Director Michael L. Abbott of Texas State University’s River Systems Institute, where outflow from the springs is measured daily. “It has been well below 100 cubic feet per second for probably the past eight or nine months. And it currently is close to 97 cubic feet per second. At 96 cubic feet per second, certain drought restrictions are mandated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority.”
Critical period stage one restrictions would require holders of EAA-issued groundwater withdrawal permits to decrease their water consumption by 20 percent. Permit holders, who control water used by about 1.7 million people, include farmers, cattle ranchers and cities such as San Marcos and San Antonio.
Under critical period stage one, San Marcos residents would be prohibited from “allowing water to puddle or run off a property, operating a sprinkler system with broken or misaligned heads, failing to repair leaks.” Restaurants in the region would be allowed “to serve water only upon specific request by the customer,” according to the City of San Marcos website.
Christopher Morris, a forecaster at the Austin/San Antonio National Weather Service (NWS) office, expects the drought to persist and “possibly intensify” through April. Hays County is in a D4 drought – the highest intensity level set by the NWS.
“This area has kind of been in a drought since 2006, with kind of an intermittent wet portion, and then back to a drought in 2007,” Morris said.
Abbott said that as the flow rate from the San Marcos Springs decreases, amounts of E. coli and other potentially harmful bacteria increase in the San Marcos River, which is fed by the San Marcos Springs. In the event that low spring flow increases harmful bacteria levels and causes harm to endangered species, Abbott said the government may restrict recreational access to the river. The Texas Blind Salamander, Fountain Darter, and Comal Springs Riffle beetle are among the eight endangered species dependent on the aquifer and springs.
Pat Stroka, who sits on the EAA Board of Directors for District 10, which includes part of Hays County, said the EAA’s regulatory authority over the San Marcos Springs could become compromised if the endangered species were killed off.
“That would cause us some significant concern if those species were gone and there was no reason to protect the spring flow at certain levels,” he said.
Stroka said the EAA mailed courtesy letters to those whose livelihoods might be imperiled if they were unprepared for critical stage one restrictions.
“I know that the farmers are not planting right now,” Stroka said. “They’re concerned that if they plant their fields, and we go into a critical stage where pumping reduction become mandatory, they may have a difficult time growing their crops to fruition. So everyone is really afraid to go ahead and plant. The folks who have cattle are running out of hay. It’s really extreme for everyone, everyone’s really paying a price … A lot of farmers are just selling off their cattle because they can’t afford to feed them.”
Ronald Coley, director of Aquarena Center, said the drought of the 1950s took seven years to create the conditions that have occurred in the past eighteen months. Coley said the 1950s drought consisted of six consecutive extremely dry years.
“We’ve been through 16, 18 months of drought,” Coley said. “And 12 of those months, when they’re figured into consecutive months, means that 2008 will go down as the driest year since 1872 … But it might not be significant if 2009 ends up being one of the wettest years.”
Coley said a wet spring may recharge the Edwards Aquifer, which is “very capable of recovering in a very short period of time.” Coley said an unresponsive public and government, coupled with a 1950s level drought, would result in the San Marcos Springs drying up.
“Six more months of the trend that we’re on right now might do it,” Coley said.
Edwards Aquifer Authority Public Affairs Officer Roland Ruiz said the upcoming increase in water demand that typically occurs as the weather warms up may catch consumers off guard, as the cold weather is masking many of the drought’s effects.
“We’re trying to warn everyone and encourage them to conserve now as best they can and educate them on the fact that, though the aquifer seems to be okay right now in terms of aquifer levels, that may change very quickly once we get into the higher demand period,” he said.
Ruiz advocates xeriscaping as a “common-sense approach” to taking care of property and lawns.
“Using plants that are native to the region, that are drought-tolerant, and that require as little care as possible, is really what it’s about,” Ruiz said.
Jan Klein, water conservation coordinator for the City of San Marcos, said police, code compliance staff and water and energy department staff will be asked to enforce water restrictions.
“We really rely pretty heavily also on our citizens to sort of help us out and keep their eyes open and report violations to us,” Klein said.
San Marcos residents are already under “year-round water use restrictions,” which include prohibitions on charity car washes and daytime irrigation with sprinklers. Irrigation with a hand-held bucket, hand-held hose, soaker hose and drip irrigation system is allowed any day and time, and non-commercial vehicle washing is allowed on any day and time using a handheld bucket or handheld hose equipped with a positive shutoff device.
The city offers rebates to residents who install rain or soil-moisture shutoff devices on existing irrigation systems and to those who switch to efficient washers and low flow toilets.Email | Print