Edwards Aquifer may require more conservation soon. How is it protected during drought?

For the first time, people who pump water from the aquifer could soon be asked to enter the most stringent conservation efforts.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority said the severe drought is not dramatically impacting the Edwards Aquifer because there are legal protections not found in any other groundwater conservation district.

The EAA is in charge of regulating how much water is pumped from the aquifer and it tracks the flow of the Comal and San Marcos Springs.

Roland Ruiz, with the Edwards Aquifer Authority, said the last historic drought in the 1950s caused Comal Springs to stop flowing for nearly five months.

In the late 80s, there was a growing concern that the aquifer would not be able to serve the rapidly growing San Antonio area.

“San Antonio was growing and there was concern that there would not be enough water in the Edwards for everyone, for everyone’s continued use. So someone very smartly said, ‘There’s endangered species there. Let’s use them as a leverage point to try to get a management plan in place,’” Ruiz said.

A lawsuit was filed under the Endangered Species Act claiming that there were no protections in place for the species living in the aquifer, like the Texas Blind Salamander.

That’s when the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act was codified to regulate the aquifer levels and spring flow.

“Although levels are low, spring flows are low, but they’re continuing to flow. And so, all we’re doing is using these tools to manage through the drought to get us to the next rainy season,” Ruiz said.

For the first time, people who pump water from the Edwards Aquifer could soon be asked to enter the most stringent conservation efforts.

Currently, permit holders are in Critical Stage Period 4, which is a 40% annual reduction.

Ruiz said it expects to enter Critical Stage Period 5 for the first time, which means people with permits for pumping water will have to cut back their annual water by 44%.

“We’re kind of teetering between stage four and stage five. So things are not looking, you know, great. But it could be much worse if these programs were not in place,” Ruiz said.

Unlike any other groundwater conservation district, there is a legal cap on how much water can be pumped out of the Edwards Aquifer.

Ruiz said the EAA can only pump 572,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons, which is enough water to cover an acre of land about 1 foot deep.

The law states that there is a cap on the number of permits given out and the EAA said it has given out all of its nearly 2,200 permits.

“When someone wants to drill a new well, they want to establish. For the Edwards, they don’t come to us to get a new permit. They have to go out on the market and find a willing seller,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the EAA does not track how much water is pumped in real-time. Instead, it checks water usage on an annual basis. Based on last year’s data, permit holders did not use all the water they were allotted despite experiencing Critical Stage Period 4 restrictions like we are experiencing now.

“We didn’t get close to the cap, the reduced cap as a result of the cutbacks. There was actually about 76,000 acre feet of water that could have been used that didn’t get used. It was left on the table,” Ruiz said.

Municipal permits use the most water from the aquifer, with nearly 60% of the approved water usage last year.

Donavan Burton, with the San Antonio Water System, said SAWS holds most of those municipal permits.

“The entire Edwards Aquifer Authority, they permit 572,000 acre-feet of the entire aquifer through all parties and everybody total throughout out for everybody. Of that, we have about 260,000 acre-feet,” Burton said.

The San Antonio Water System has never exceeded its limit and it attributes that to diversifying its water resources through desalination, water tanks, and pumping from other bodies of water like Canyon Lake.

“During drought periods, we absolutely need all those different sources so that you’re not completely reliant on one source that may or may not be there in a particular year,” Burton said.

Last year, nearly 100 permit holders exceeded their limit out of 2,259 total. When a permit holder goes over their limit, the EAA has a sliding scale of penalties depending on how much water they used and what critical stage period was in place.

Ruiz said there is a culture of stewardship surrounding the Edwards Aquifer.

“They understand and they really take it seriously, I think. So I think it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not so much a regulatory agency imposing its will on people, but it’s people understanding and acknowledging their role in the stewardship of the resource,” Ruiz said.

Last year, irrigation used 31% and industrial used 7%.

There is a total of 2,259 permits. Shared below is the number of permits and their use:

  • Municipal: 595 permits
  • Industrial 416 permits
  • Irrigation 1,248 permits

About the Authors:

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.

Gavin Nesbitt is a photojournalist and video editor who joined KSAT in September 2021. He has traveled across the great state of Texas to film, conduct interviews and edit many major news stories, including the White Settlement church shooting, Hurricane Hanna, 2020 presidential campaigns, Texas border coverage and the Spurs.