Well users say aquifer authority squeezing themAs aquifer authority brings pumping in line, San Marcos private school, church criticize enforcement of their usage.
By Asher Price
Friday, September 05, 2008
SAN MARCOS — For roughly 25 years, the owners of the private Wonderland School operated their own water well, pulling up enough water to flush the toilets, supply teachers and pupils with drinking water, irrigate the modest lawn and operate a washing machine.
But in 2007, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which regulates pumping of the giant underground reservoir that supplies water for more than 1.7 million Texans, informed the school for infants through sixth-graders that it had to pay a fine of $6,600 for unauthorized water withdrawals and either buy or lease pumping rights from another permit holder or else cap the well.
Broadly speaking, except for homeowners and ranchers, well owners have to buy rights to pump water out of the aquifer. The school, along with a neighboring church and several other businesses, say the fines are too harsh and have continued pumping water as they negotiate with the authority.
"The crime and the punishment aren't matching up," says Jim Fife, the principal and owner of Wonderland, which was started by his mother in 1965. Wonderland, according its to meter and drilling records, used about 46,000 gallons of water in July, reaching about 190 feet below ground. An Austin family of five, by comparison, uses roughly 25,000 gallons of water per month.
If nothing else, the skirmish illustrates how strained water resources are in Central and South Texas. With more demand for water as the population grows and with hot, dry summers robbing the aquifer of valuable rainwater recharge, the underground water has become an expensive, crucial commodity.
"Under these market pressures, the price of aquifer water will almost certainly continue to skyrocket," concluded a 2007 report by Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit that tracks money in politics titled " 'Til Your Well Runs Dry: How the State of Texas Converted the Edwards Aquifer into a Multi-Million Dollar Commodity."
The authority says the notice about unauthorized withdrawals is part of an effort to keep a tighter watch on the pumping of the aquifer that is beginning in Hays County and will extend to the South Central Texas counties of Atascosa, Bexar, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, Medina and Uvalde.
In another letter to the school in January, the authority reduced the school's fine amount to a minimum of $500 but repeated that the school would have to either acquire groundwater rights from somebody who already holds them or cap the well.
Fife estimates Wonderland would have to pay at least $50,000 to cap the well and tie into the city's water utility. With groundwater scarce, buying pumping rights to an acre-foot of water, about 325,851 gallons, costs at least $5,000, according to the aquifer authority.
Officials at the Grace Bible Church next door say they cannot afford the authority's fines either.
"Naturally, it seems to me that it's a bureaucracy gone out of control," said the Rev. Jim Davis. "It's pretty heavy-handed and not very understanding of anything."
The authority said drought conditions and heavy pumping in 2006 cut the flow at the Comal and San Marcos springs, which are home to tiny endangered species and form the headwaters for the San Marcos River, popular among tubers, boaters and swimmers.
"We want to get a good grasp on what's happening with the pumping," said authority spokesman Roland Ruiz.
The Legislature, which created the authority in 1993, has long grappled with how much water should be pumped out of the aquifer.
In 2007, the Texas House rejected attempts by Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, to offer greater protection to the San Marcos and Comal springs while allowing more pumping.
Rose said that although he plans to introduce legislation in the upcoming session that would give greater drought-period protections to the springs, small-time water users should be exempt from purchasing or leasing water rights.
Rose said the authority's governing board "ought to suspend enforcement of penalties until the rules are reconsidered."
Board member Mark Taylor said the authority is working on ways to ease penalties and fees for well owners.
"We do have an interest here in protecting the springs," said Taylor, who represents parts of Hays and Caldwell counties. "The only way to do that is a good management plan based on the amounts being pumped from the aquifer each year."