by Claire Schreiber
Few things get Texans as riled up as water, and concerns are growing as our population booms. Scorching summers and flash droughts lead many to consider groundwater a safety-net source, but it has issues, too.
One hundred years of case law and a few Senate bills here and there have resulted in the groundwater planning system in place today. Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCDs) are local authorities that manage groundwater levels and quality within their (usually) countywide boundaries. At the regional level, Groundwater Management Areas (GMAs) composed of GCD representatives set targets for “desired future conditions” (DFCs) of groundwater. Between these and other players in the regulatory game, it can be hard to tell who’s in charge. Unfortunately, this system lends itself to disputes over that power faster than the Texas weather changes its mind. With Texas’ future dependent on adequate supplies, we need to work together to get this right.
Case in point: water has taken center stage in Hays County on multiple fronts lately, including concern over the protection of Jacob’s Well. At a special public hearing of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, fear over adoption of regional DFCs was clear. Nearly 100 people attended the September 23rd meeting in Wimberley; many argued that adopting these region-wide targets wouldn’t be enough to keep Jacob’s Well from going dry.
Brian Hunt, senior hydrogeologist for neighboring Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD), offered a solution. He argued that setting DFCs is an important planning step, but this target won’t actually change the spring flow that keeps Jacob’s Well alive. “Really only the District can develop rules to help manage critical or threatened resources such as Jacob’s well,” Hunt explained. Ultimately, that power already lies with the District, irrespective of the DFCs. Hunt’s district created special “management zones” to protect vulnerable areas through subset DFC requirements, something other districts can do as well. However, the meeting resulted in an impasse. After much discussion, Hays Trinity chose to abstain from approval of DFCs altogether, leaving the decision up to other districts in their region.
The devil may be in the details here, but reaching an impasse isn’t a viable option for water issues. Perhaps they aimed to make a larger political statement in opposition to the proposed criteria set by the GMA. Regardless, disagreement over a simple planning tool may have delayed or even prevented the district from achieving its ultimate goal. By following the successful example of another local district, this mess may have been avoided altogether. Learning from others’ successes is a necessary solution, even if the regulatory system is confusing.
If Texas’ history of water governance has shown anything, it’s that agreement is not easy to achieve. There’s much to be done to protect areas like Jacob’s Well, but Hunt was optimistic. “The great news is that people are interested in water,” he said while recounting the Hays Trinity meeting to the BSEACD Board on September 24th. I have to agree – we can’t afford not to be.