News

All eyes on the Carrizo

Though water district permit processes differ, source is the same
By KEN ESTEN COOKE Reporter Publisher

S The gushing natural spring Jacob's Well near Wimberley has slowed to a trickle, potentially a canary in a coal mine for the drought-stricken Hill Country.

S San Antonio Water Supply recently filed a $1.2- billion suit against the Lower Colorado River Authority for reneging on future water commitments.

S State water planners are seeing a continual drying of the western parts of Texas, and more moisture in eastern parts. Major plans eventually include transporting water from east to west.

With scenarios like that and big cities thirsting for future water supplies, many eyes are on the Carrizo Wilcox aquifer, which runs right through Milam and neighboring Burleson County, which make up the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District.

The massive aquifer—the geological formation that contains ground water—stretches from northeast Texas all the way down to the border of Mexico. Neighboring Lee and Bastrop Counties, which make up the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, also subsist off the Carrizo-Wilcox. What one does could affect the other, so the state's 88 water districts must work together to preserve this wet resource.

Anyone in Texas who wants to move water knows about it and wants in on it. With population demands straining Hill Country water supplies, eyes are looking eastward to the two water districts. How they get in on the Carrizo-Wilcox's offerings is, in part, up to management authorities along the aquifer and those can be as different as night and day.

"Everybody's looking at the Carrizo," POSGCD Manager Gary Westbrook said. "The nice thing about sand aquifers is that there's a whole lot of water in them."

Permitting

Blue Water Corp. has been first into the Carrizo-Wilcox pool, and has designs on moving lots of water westward. They are permitted for 70,993 acre-feet. For comparison, Alcoa, which no longer pumps in the district, is permitted for 15,000 acre-feet.

But others are dipping the proverbial toe. Westbrook said when a company or other water entity approaches groundwater districts, plenty of homework has been done.

"By the time they approach us, they've already spent $100,000 or more hiring hydrology firms for study," he said. "They know what's there. The question then becomes whether or not they want to invest the money."

Westbrook said with Alcoa's recent decrease in pumping, due to no more mining in Milam County, area wells have begun to recover. He said water levels average about 87 feet above the pumps and there is little imminent danger of over-pumping.

"We would be several years away, possibly decades away, from any pumping restrictions," he said.

But with many Central Texas entities looking to it for the future, concerns are raised, particularly among local agriculture industry and landowners, that water levels could suffer, particularly here in the "shallow end" of the aquifer.

"I don't blame them for being concerned. I'm concerned, too," said Westbrook, who also owns land and runs cattle.

POSGCD has a management plan set up to allow no more than a 50-foot draw down for area wells. Some are uncomfortable with that, but others want them to loosen that.

"If you clamp down too hard on the spigot, the people with more votes (metro areas) will come and take it," he said.

Lost Pines GCD

In Lee and Bastrop Counties, the same battles are taking place, the same concerns being expressed.

Joe Cooper, manager for the Lost Pines GCD, said his district has a different set of permit guidelines.

"Ours requires a test well and we don't give a production permit until we see the results of a pump test," Cooper said. "We want to make sure it doesn't have more impact than they say it's going to have."

Lost Pines GCD has permit fees of 12 cents per 1,000 gallons for pumping and 5 cents per 1,000 for transport. By comparison, Post Oak Savannah GCD's fees are 6 cents and 3 cents, respectively.

Post Oak Savannah fees are collected as soon as the permit is issued. Blue Water has paid millions in permit fees so far, but has yet to pump its first gallon.

Lost Pines' more stringent testing makes permits harder to come by, but there are no fees until pumping begins, which looks more attractive to an investor.

"Right now, we've got 14 or 15 wells that are being looked at for export," Cooper said. "Over the next three or four years, we will see a lot more."

Cooper said pumping in Post Oak Savannah could affect levels in the Lost Pines district. "I hope Blue Water doesn't have a greater effect than what the Post Oak Savannah expects," he said.

"We're all doing water modeling for the future and we have all come to similar draw down conclusions. I feel like it will work if we don't have more draw down than expected."

Those scenarios see a 266-foot drop in aquifer levels over the next 60 years, numbers which concern everyone.

"Eventually, we will tighten up as we see aquifer levels going down," Cooper said.

Board members

Groundwater Conservation District boards are made up of a variety of concerns. In the Post Oak Savannah, there are business interests, including Alcoan Jim Hodson, ranchers and other agriculture industry workers. Lost Pines also has a diversity of interests.

"Our board, especially those from Lee County, is going to be very protective to make sure there is water for Lee County growth, whenever that starts occurring," Cooper said. "On the other hand, the Bastrop County members are more environmentally concerned, and they don't want to see the area's springs drawn down."


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