Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle), right, discusses water policy with Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District Board Member Andrew Backus, center, and an audience member, left. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (HTGCD) presented its assessment of the Hays Trinity Aquifer Tuesday and ended it by asking Hays County commissioners today to think of ways the county can reduce its dependence on groundwater.
HTGCD said it’s financially strapped and asked the county for $250,000, well more than the $75,000 it received from the county twice in the last two years.
“Our legislative effort failed, and we find ourselves operating with a diminished amount of income because the economy has cut down on the number of wells that are being drilled,” said HTGCD board member Jack Hollon (District 5). “That’s both good and bad, I suppose — it puts less pressure on the aquifer.”
The state legislation that created HTGCD limits the district’s revenue sources to new well construction fees and utility connection fees, both of which are capped at $300. HTGCD can legally require permitting of wells equipped to pump more than 25,000 gallons a day. Therefore, utility companies are required to hold permits, while private well owners — regardless of their lot size — are generally exempt.
Private well owners and utility customers each use about half of the aquifer. The failed legislation to which Hollon referred was proposed by HTGCD to State Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) and State Representative Patrick Rose (D-Dripping Springs) in March. The proposal would have given the district more funding options and the power to require permitting of wells on lots smaller than 10 acres incapable of pumping more than 25,000 gallons per day.
But the two legislators did not support HTGCD’s legislation, and created another bill, which board members voted to reject in April. The legislators’ bill would not have increased HTGCD’s authority, and would have allowed HTGCD to generate no more than $100,000 per year for two years via a fee charged to utility customers.
HTGCD Board Member Andrew Backus (District 3) said last month that HTGCD needs about $400,000 per year to effectively manage groundwater production in its jurisdiction. He said the district currently receives about $80,000 per year.
Fifty-four percent of the county is under the authority of HTGCD.
“Our income is going down and we definitely need these operating funds,” said Hollon. “I think you have a grant proposal that was already submitted. All the grant proposals that we’ve made before were normally dedicated to scientific work and that sort of thing, but we’re going to need some help just keeping the doors open this time.”
Data supplied to commissioners by HTGCD indicates the Hays Trinity Aquifer lost 1,618 acre-feet of water in 2008. One acre-foot of water amounts to 325,851 gallons of water. According to HTGCD, the aquifer lost 289 acre-feet of water in 2007. In 2006 the aquifer lost 317 acre-feet of water, and, in 2005, it gained 10 acre feet. The aquifer gained 211 acre-feet and lost 244 acre-feet of water in 2004 and 2003, respectively.
“Our primary drought trigger in the southern part of the district is the Blanco River flow,” Hollon said. “We’ve got 82 years of data on that, and that water comes right out of the aquifer … This whole past week, the flow has been down in the four to five cubic feet per second (cfs) range. Which contrasts with a median that you would expect at this time of year of 60-70 cfs. The average would be even higher than that — about 150 — that takes into account floods and so forth that are in the database.”
Hollon said Jacob’s Well in Wimberley has “flat-lined.”
Added Hollon, “Essentially, we’ve had five or six days of no-flow at Jacob’s Well. The well itself looks pretty horrible. There’s still water there … but it’s covered with scum and algae and there’s no movement there. We just finished monitoring 40 wells in the district. they show an average five to six-foot drop in water levels during this past month. When you compare the water levels now with the water levels in June 2008, the 20 or so wells that are in Wimberley show a drop of about eight to nine feet. We have a similar number of wells in the Dripping Springs area … which show a drop averaging around 33 (to) 34 feet.”
After HTGCD Board President Baker solicited ideas from commissioners for slowing the aquifer’s depletion, Hays County Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said the public must become more informed about water conservation strategies such as rainwater harvesting and water re-use methods. Ford condemned St. Augustine lawns, which require more water than lawns of other grass species. She said the most important step is getting people to use less groundwater.
“When I look at the data, I see that surface water should be brought it, but not in the way it was brought in in Dripping Springs,” said County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) later in the workshop. “Because that just increased the (groundwater) deficit.”
Earlier in the workshop, Jimmy Skipton of Henly entered the discussion, asking why Dripping Springs Water Supply Corporation went from using 71 acre-feet of groundwater in 2005 to causing a 193 acre-foot aquifer water deficit in 2006.
Backus, also in the audience, chimed in: “There’s motivation to not use it even though (Dripping Springs is) connected. Because one costs them money. They get to sell the water, right? If their inventory is free, wouldn’t you prefer to sell that inventory?”
Backus said Dripping Springs began using LCRA-provided surface water between 2003 and 2004. In 2004, Dripping Springs contributed to the depletion of the aquifer by 51 acre-feet. Last year, the city used 625 acre feet of groundwater. Between 2003 and 2008, Dripping Springs depleted the aquifer faster than any other Hays County city.
“If you want to implement some market forces here, for somebody to be able to charge for groundwater makes it more of an even playing field, in a sense.” Backus said. “I’m sure Wimberley doesn’t like hearing that, obviously. Nobody wants to be paying for something that was previously free … That’s why one strategy for funding a groundwater district is to allow them to charge some kind of a fee, because then there are consequences to the user for using more of that resource.”
HTGCD’s proposed legislation would have allowed its board members to implement a new well owner registration fee of up to $125 and a production fee of 17 cents per thousand gallons of pumped groundwater.
Pending county development regulations may set a minimum lot size requirement at 6.5 acres for developments served by individual, private wells located in the state-designated Priority Groundwater Management Area (PGMA). The PGMA is in the western part of the county and under the jurisdiction of HTGCD.
“You cannot divorce water policy wholly from transportation policy, from land use policy and broader society policies,” said Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle).