Tuesday, August 03, 2021

San Antonio pipes in water from 150 miles away. Does anyone else pay for it?

See San Antonio built a pipeline to rural Central Texas to increase its water supply. Now local landowners say their wells are running dry. by Erin Douglas of The Texas Tribune. 

It's called the Vista Ridge pipeline. It pumps water to San Antonio from other aquifers. It seems that it lowers those water levels, making it harder for residents in those areas to pump water. They have to lower their pumps or dig deeper wells, which is costly. In some cases they are compensated. In others they are not.


"The pipeline helped conserve the sensitive Edwards Aquifer, upon which San Antonio has historically depended for water.

But less than a year after the pipeline began to suck water from a different aquifer in Central Texas for delivery to 1.8 million people, some residents in that rural area turned on their taps only to be greeted by air."

"some rural landowners see the water export project in Central Texas not as a prudent response to climate change but as the perfect example of how unchecked urban expansion is encroaching on their lives. Pitting cities against rural dwellers and economic growth against environmental conservation, the Vista Ridge project, some experts said, is a preview of the water wars that will grow worse across Texas in coming decades. The fastest-growing use of water in Texas is no longer agriculture, but municipal, according to the state’s water plan, and municipal needs are projected to outstrip irrigation by 2060."

Texas has "a patchwork of water laws that essentially allows anyone who owns or leases enough land — and the water below — to pump water, regardless of whether it affects neighboring properties for miles around. And because political boundaries don’t follow the natural underground water flows and formations, local regulations on pumping don’t necessarily protect everyone whose water wells are affected."

"Since April 2020, when the project came online, groundwater levels in the area near Vista Ridge wells have plummeted"

"the Vista Ridge project is permitted to pump nearly 56,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Carrizo and Simsboro formations. As the groundwater level retreats in their wells, residents have been forced to extend their pumps farther underground and upgrade to stronger equipment that can bring the water up from new depths. The work can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and there’s no guarantee they won’t have to drill deeper in the future."

"Leaders in San Antonio" say "“The economic generators of the U.S. are cities,” said Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “Rural areas are still important,” he said, “but cities are what is driving the state and the country.”"

"Private water marketers worked over the course of a decade to put together thousands of water leases from rural landowners in the rolling and lush cattle ranch land of Burleson and Milam counties, about 50 miles east of Austin, to make the Vista Ridge project possible. The 18 water wells tap the Carrizo and Simsboro formations of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which underlies a long, narrow swath of the state from its southwest border to East Texas. Now operated by EPCOR, a Canadian utility company, the wells connect to the pipeline that runs southwest to a water station in Bexar County.

In the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which includes Milam and Burleson counties, more than a third of its water pumped from the Carrizo and almost three fourths of its pumped water from the Simsboro is flowing to San Antonio, according to data from the district. There, the imported water now fills about 20% of the city’s daily water needs.

Beginning last fall, dozens of landowners in Lee, Burleson and Milam counties — including some beyond the boundaries of the local groundwater district — began to notice problems with their wells as water dropped below the level their pumps could reach.

George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist in San Antonio who represented landowners opposed to the project, said he wasn’t surprised that residents now need to lower their pumps. The model that Rice created for his analysis in 2015 and 2016 predicted that, in one year of pumping, the Carrizo formation’s water level would drop by 54 feet within 5 miles of the Vista Ridge pumping, and 19 feet within a 10-mile radius in what is called the “confined zone” of the aquifer — pressurized sections of the aquifer that are sandwiched between impermeable rock or sand above and below. Such drops can put water levels out of reach of local residents’ pumps.

“If they’re lucky, they’ll just have to lower their pump, or if they’re unlucky, they’ll have to deepen their wells, which is more expensive,” Rice said."

"Data from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, where the Vista Ridge wells are located, confirms anecdotal reports from residents. The district regulates use of groundwater in Milam and Burleson counties, but its decisions can also affect the aquifer’s conditions beyond the political borders. The district’s data shows water levels in several wells nearby have dropped dramatically. At a water well on County Road 324, about five miles from a cluster of Vista Ridge wells, water levels have sunk almost 100 feet since April 2020. That’s more than the well’s water had dropped in the 30 years since the district’s records began."

"the dropping water levels are allowed — even expected — under the permits that Vista Ridge received from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, as long as the project doesn’t exceed its permitted pumping limit.

“How we developed the wellfield ensured that there was sufficient spacing and pumpage rates so that any potential decline over time would be well within the limits [set by the groundwater district],” said Mark Janay, operating partner at Ridgewood Infrastructure, a New York infrastructure company that is the majority owner of the Vista Ridge project.

When asked how the company has mitigated impacts to local landowners’ wells, Janay said the company draws primarily from the deeper Simsboro formation, which landowners don’t rely on, and that the pumping from the Carrizo is limited by the local groundwater district.

"Hydrologists for Ridgewood and the groundwater district said the impacts to the water levels should taper off after a big initial drop. That’s what the groundwater districts are now monitoring for."

Despite the growing importance of groundwater, Texas is the only state in the West — where water is particularly scarce — that still uses the “rule of capture,” which essentially allows landowners to pump as much groundwater from their property as they want without facing liability from surrounding landowners.

But Collins, of Rice University, said a patchwork of local rules from the 98 groundwater conservation districts in the state means the rule is applied in many ways, including where different districts have different rules for the same large aquifer. More than 20 districts regulate water use for the massive Carrizo-Wilcox, which spans from East to Southwest Texas.

The Vista Ridge Project took advantage of those differences."

"limits vary widely from district to district, and as long as a company pumps less than the permitted amount, the groundwater district isn’t obligated to intervene when a neighbor’s supply is affected.

The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District responded to dwindling groundwater levels with a well mitigation program that compensates landowners for the cost to lower their pumps or even drill a new well. Groundwater officials said the limits they’ve set in the district are sufficient to conserve water in the region, and the landowners who agreed to lease water for the project have a right to do what they want with the water below their land."

"Outside that district, though, landowners who didn’t lease their water — or even know that their neighbors had done so — have seen water levels drop."

"The Lost Pines district didn’t grant any permit to Vista Ridge, nor did it collect any fees from the project, but it will soon have to pay to fix wells. In response to complaints from landowners, James Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines district, said the district recently created a program to reimburse landowners for the cost to lower or upgrade their pumps, and it is considering a moratorium on pumping water in areas where the water levels have dramatically dropped in the last year."

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