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Edwards Aquifer News for 2014

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November 2014

Councilman Ron Nirenberg brokers deal to save Bracken bats

On October 10 the Express-News reported that San Antonio Councilman Ron Nirenberg had succeeded in brokering a deal to purchase the land around the Bracken Bat Cave and save it from development. The issue leapt into the headlines in May of 2013, when it was learned that Galo Properties planned to build up to 3,800 homes on 1,500 acres next door to the world's largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats (see previous NewsFlash). Aside from the unique ecological importance of the bats, the issue was seen as an Edwards Aquifer protection issue, since the tract is over the Recharge Zone.

State Rep. Lyle Larson and County Commissioner Kevin Wolff initially stepped in to try and broker a solution, and the initiative was then taken up by freshman Councilman Nirenberg shortly after he took office last year. The city commissioned a study to examine how development might affect the bats and whether their current reserve is sufficient, but it resisted calls for the study's release to the public. Although Galo was sensitive to public concerns about their proposed development, the tract was almost sold to another developer that seemed to have little regard for the bats, but that sale fell through.

Meanwhile, Nirenberg brought together several interested parties, including the Nature Conservancy, Bat Conservation International, the county, and the U.S. Army, to work out a deal for preservation of the tract.

Galo agreed to sell the property for $20.5 million, and the Express reported that most of the funds have been lined up. The Nature Conservancy and Bat Conservation International raised $5 million, the city will contribute $5 million from its Aquifer Protection Fund, and developer Forestar Group agreed to contribute $5 million in return for credits that will allow it to have denser development elsewhere. Bexar county and the Edwards Aquifer Authority are expected to contribute $500,000 each. And the Army will chip in $100,000 because it is interested in protecting Golden-cheeked warbler habitat to keep the birds from being forced to make greater use of its Camp Bullis training reserve, which could make Army operations there more difficult.

There were immediate calls to name the site the Ron Nirenberg Bat Preserve, although the modest councilman would not ask for such an honor and probably has never thought about it.

Naming things after a living public official is usually not done, but we have already made an exception in the case of Phil Hardberger Park. Some of you oldsters will recall that long before Hardberger was San Antonio's Mayor, he was the lawyer for the environmental groups that fought against the Ranch Town development on the Recharge Zone in the early 1970s. That was the controversy that made "Edwards Aquifer" a household word (read about it on the Laws and Regulations page).

So if you'd like to see the site named for Mr. Nirenberg, let you elected officials know!

October 2014

J-17 level triggers Voluntary Irrigation Suspension Program for 2015

An October 1 level of the J-17 index well of 630.6 feet triggered the first-ever implementation of a program known as the Voluntary Irrigation Suspension Program (VISPO), which compensates farmers to suspend their agricultural irrigation.

The program is part of the Regional Habitat Conservation Plan to protect the habitat of endangered species and takes effect for the following year if the J-17 level is below 635 feet on October 1. Farmers are paid a "standby fee" of $50 to $70 per acre-feet just to enroll, and if the program is triggered they then receive $200 to $280 per acre-foot for not irrigating the following year.

In late August, the program had enrolled 25,300 acre-feet through about 70 permit holders.

Farmers can also opt-out if the J-17 rises to 660 feet by January 1.

September 2014

SAWS approves water supply contract; public hearing set for October 8

On September 29 the SAWS Board of Trustees approved a contract with the Vista Ridge consortium to deliver 50,000 acre-feet of Carrizo Aquifer water to San Antonio as early as 2019.

SAWS chairman Berto Guerra said "This new water supply will protect the Edwards Aquifer, prepare us for a drought of record, and help ensure the city's economic prosperity for our children and grandchildren. This is an unprecedented win-win partnership for our community that will secure San Antonio's water future for decades to come."

The next steps involve continued public outreach and consideration by San Antonio's City Council. A public hearing was set for October 8 at 6:00 pm in council chambers.

For more details on how the project evolved and its current status, see the Vista Ridge section on the Carrizo Aquifer page.

August 2014

EAA declares Stage IV for first time

On August 12 the Edwards Aquifer Authority imposed Stage IV drought restrictions for the first time ever, requiring pumpers to initiate pumping cutbacks of up to 40%. Nothing changes for San Antonio residents, because San Antonio Water System continues to maintain its Stage 2 restrictions.

SAWS has invested hundreds of millions in developing a diversified water portfolio and can meet the required cutbacks by utilizing other supplies, such as from the Carrizo and Trinity aquifers, from storage in its Aquifer Storage and Recovery system, and through use of the nation's largest direct recycled water system.

If you live outside San Antonio, check with your local municipality to see what restrictions might apply to you.

July 2014

Soil and Water Conservation Board to consider brush management plan

In May of 2014, the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board offered a draft Water Supply Enhancement Plan that focuses on management of brushy species such as cedar. It was immediately criticized as perhaps the most inaccurate document ever prepared by a Texas state agency.

It repeats many of the same old cedar myths, cites research that even the researchers say was wrong, and labels cedar as "detrimental to water conservation". The document is so hapless it even refers to cedar as a phreatophyte, which it surely is not. (By definition, a phreatophyte gets most of its water from the phreatic or saturated zone of an aquifer or riparian zone. That is not cedar.)

The Board's Executive Director Rex Isom said large-scale brush-clearing "is a cornerstone solution for water supply issues in Texas." But as the Austin American-Statesman reported, the proposed program drew quick opposition from environmentalists, property owners and academics who say it is misguided and could lead to large scale soil erosion and no extra water.

Texas A&M University range management scientist Brad Wilcox wrote to the Board saying "We fundamentally disagree with the plan's underlying tenet that brush management is a viable strategy for increasing water supplied from Texas rangelands." His letter was co-signed by seven additional A&M researchers.

"The scientific evidence is overwhelming that shrub control will not increase water supply in Texas," Wilcox wrote. "We believe the plan as currently designed is a poor use of taxpayer money and we recommend that it not go forward."

Wilcox and 11 other scientists also co-authored comments on the state's draft plan which outlined its many problems and dubious conclusions. Read their comments here.

The Board is scheduled to consider the plan for adoption on July 28. For more on cedar and brush management, see the page on that topic.

SAWS begins negotiations on largest-ever non-Edwards supply

Following earlier developments in the Newsflash below, SAWS formally approved the proposal by the Vista Ridge consortium to bring 50,000 acre-feet of Carrizo Aquifer water to San Antonio, and it appointed a negotiating team to work out the details of a long-term contract for Board and City Council approval in the fall.

SAWS CEO Robert Puente said "This project is a game-changer for San Antonio, helping us meet a diverse and growing demand for water for decades to come. Purchasing this quantity of water is one of the most significant decisions our community will make. It will require a 30-year commitment of annual payments, but it will provide the security of knowing our economic future and our quality of life will not be held back because of a lack of water."

For more details see the Vista Ridge section on the Carrizo Aquifer page.

June 2014

GBRA lawsuit dismissed

On June 3, following a two and a half hour hearing, Judge Stephen Yelenonsky dismissed GBRA’s lawsuit that attempted to block several types of reuse of Edwards Aquifer water.

Among the judge’s findings is that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has primary jurisdiction over the case.

"This is a victory for transparency," said SAWS President and CEO Robert R. Puente. "We are eager to move forward at TCEQ with an open and public evaluation of our application for a bed and banks authorization."

May 2014

12 parties appear in court to oppose GBRA

On May 19, Judge Stephen Yelenonsky of the 261st Judicial District in Travis county received responses from a dozen parties opposing GBRA’s Petition for Expedited Declaratory Judgment that would prevent several types of reuse of Edwards Aquifer water. No parties appeared to support GBRA.

Opposing parties were the San Antonio River Authority, the Cibolo Creek Municipal Authority, San Antonio Water System, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, The Aransas Project, New Braunfels Utilities, and six corporations associated with properties of the O’Connor family that are adjacent to the San Antonio and Guadalupe rivers.

All of them asserted that Judge Yelenonsky’s court lacks jurisdiction in the case, because the actions requested by GBRA fall outside the scope of the Expedited Declaratory Judgments Act.

In addition, SAWS asserted the relief sought by GBRA would amount to an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation, in violation of the Texas and United States Constitutions.

Both CCMA and New Braunfels Utilities have reuse applications pending with TCEQ that are of the same type SAWS has requested, and in their filings they indicated they were protecting their interests.

The Aransas Project asserted that GBRA has no property right in wastewater owned by a third party, groundwater, or state-owned surface water, and therefore such property cannot be pledged to secure bonds as GBRA requested.

The TCEQ noted that it had primary jurisdiction over water rights in Texas, and that GBRA’s request would foreclose applications pending before it.

After receiving the filings from all the interested parties, Judge Yelenonsky scheduled a hearing on the matter for June 3.

Nirenberg seeks support from Comal on saving bats

On May 12 the Express-News reported that Councilman Ron Nirenberg would ask Comal county Commissioners to endorse and support a plan to compile funds for purchase of the Galo Properties near the Bracken Cave. Nirenberg is working on a deal that would provide $5 million from the San Antonio’s Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, which would be matched by funds raised privately by Bat Conservation International. The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation has pledged $1 million for the effort.

Even if $11 million were in hand, more would be needed, as the price of the property may exceed $20 million.

April 2014

GBRA asks court to rule that indirect reuse of Edwards water is not allowed

On April 25, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority filed a Petition for Expedited Declaratory Judgment in a Travis county courthouse, asserting that SAWS efforts to indirectly reuse Edwards water for environmental instream flow purposes is not allowed by the legislation that established the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

Let's start with some background:

On January 30 of 2013, SAWS filed an application with the State for authorization to use part of its groundwater-based treatment plant effluents for maintenance of instream flow in the San Antonio River. In Texas, there is a general law provision that allows dischargers of groundwater to secure a "Bed and Banks" authorization, in which a state-owned watercourse is used as a pipeline or conduit to move treated groundwater elsewhere for many types of reuse, such as irrigation, mining, or instream purposes like recreation and environmental protection. A large part of SAWS effluent come from the Edwards Aquifer, with smaller portions from the Trinity and Carrizo aquifers.

In the last few years, there has been a lot of focus on the issue of maintaining flows in Texas' streams for environmental purposes. The effluent that SAWS asked to dedicate to environmental purposes would emerge in San Antonio Bay adjacent to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, home of the endangered Whooping Crane. SAWS action grew out of recommendations made by regional stakeholders regarding voluntary actions that could be undertaken to ensure flow in the San Antonio and Guadalupe Rivers (see the San Antonio River page for much more on instream flows).

SAWS action was also an outgrowth of recommendations made by regional stakeholders in 1988, when stakeholders decided that any reuse plans by SAWS should take into account environmental needs and downstream water rights that may have been issued in the past based on the use or availability of effluent. Those recommendations were adopted by the San Antonio City Council, and SAWS recycled water distribution system was subsequently designed and built in accordance.

Meanwhile, GBRA is pursuing development of a water supply project known as the Lower Basin Project, which would divert water from the Guadalupe River below its confluence with the San Antonio River, just a few miles from San Antonio Bay. SAWS effluents flow past the proposed diversion point on their way to the Bay.

In the court filing, GBRA asserted there are two provisions in the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act that prevent any discharger from using the general law Bed and Banks authorization for reuse. In the definitions section of the Act, reuse is defined as:

...authorized use for one or more beneficial purposes of use of water that remains unconsumed after the water is used for the original purpose of use and before the water is discharged or otherwise allowed to flow into a watercourse, lake, or other body of state-owned water.

According to GBRA, this definition means that reuse after discharge is not allowed.

Another section of the Act says that Edwards water must be used within the boundaries of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. GBRA asserts this language also precludes reuse downstream in areas outside the EAA jurisdiction, such as SAWS has asked to do.

Whether GBRA's interpretation is correct is something that has never come up before, but if correct it would have large implications for any discharger of Edwards water that may have plans to use some of their treated groundwater in the future by moving it downstream in a state watercourse. Using recycled water is an important component of the latest Texas State Water Plan.

A Petition for Expedited Declaratory Judgment is a proceeding in which a party is not actually suing someone else but asks a judge to resolve uncertainty. While there is no particular defendant, the court sets a trial date so that persons with a recognized interest can appear to challenge the requested action. In its petition, GBRA is asking a judge to agree with its interpretation of the EAA Act and make their interpretation forever binding and conclusive. A trial date was set for May 19.

EAA moves to Stage 3

On April 10, the EAA declared Stage 3 restrictions for pumpers in the San Antonio pool of the Edwards. San Antonio Water System remained in Stage 2 status, although customers were asked to conserve. SAWS is able to deliver water from other sources besides the Edwards and meet the pumping cutbacks required by EAA. Other cities in the region that rely more heavily on the Edwards imposed additional restrictions on their customers. For example, New Braunfels limited lawn watering to once every two weeks, based on the last digit of the customer address. As always, check with your local municipality to learn exactly what restrictions may apply to you.

March 2014

Bracken Cave bats get new advocate

In March, a new advocacy group called Bats Across Texas was formed for the preservation of the Bracken Cave bats. The need for such a group was pointed up last year when both Stratford Land Investment company and Bat Conservation International were in negotiations with Galo Properties, owner of the cave, for purchase of the site. BCI could not really in good faith pursue negotiations while openly opposing a potential sale to Stratford.

The organization was formed by Bettina Canales Jary-Mathis, who is also a BCI board member. Republican lobbyist W. James Jonas III is acting as a pro-bono legal adviser for the new group, and his wife Rhonda offered to do public relations work.

The new group offers a fresh twist on the bat conservation effort in that it is approaching the issue from a limited-government economic perspective. It stresses the importance of bats in providing non-chemical pest control that benefits agriculture, and the role of bats in controlling insects that threaten humans and domestic animals. The group also announced a new political action committee, BATPAC, has also been formed and will be active in the 2014 election cycle.

Jary-Mathis said “Bats Across Texas is excited to share the message of protecting and appreciating the value of the environmental and economic contributions of this special order of mammals. Our state has the largest maternal bat colony in the world (10 million bats) at Bracken Cave. Texas bats are a treasured partner, and their home at Bracken Cave is of extraordinary and unique international significance.”

In addition to Bracken Cave, the group also hopes to promote the understanding and protection of other bat colonies such as under the Congress Street bridge in Austin and in various caves around the state.

February 2014

SAWS shifts water supply focus to desalination; still considering freshwater pipeline

In January of 2011, SAWS issued a formal request for proposals for new water supply projects that would provide an alternative water source and help diversify the city’s long-term water supplies. The objective was to identify projects by which private sector suppliers could provide 20,000 acre-feet per year to San Antonio by 2030, and 60,000 acre-feet by 2060.

By 2013, three were still under consideration, and significant public oppositon emerged against two of them.

One proposal involved pumping water from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer in Val Verde county, and in October opponents packed a SAWS Board meeting in hopes of pressuring SAWS to reject the proposal. They cited impacts on creeks that support the threatened Devil's River minnow, and claimed that models by the Texas Water Development Board have overestimated the amount of groundwater available. Del Rio Mayor Roberto Fernandez said "I certainly appreciate SAWS looking out for its citizens and with the growth you're experiencing, I have no problem with that. Where we have a problem, in our part of the state, is that they not use our water."

A second proposal from Dimmit County prompted the local Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, from which permits would be needed, to pass a resolution to “specifically oppose the exportation of large quantities of groundwater from Dimmit and Val Verde counties, as is being considered by the San Antonio Water System.”

The only proposal with no significant opposition, that of Abenoga Water LLC to bring Carrizo Aquifer water from east of Austin, was also the highest-ranked, but it could only guarantee costs and not water. SAWS CEO Robert Puente said “The highest ranked proposal was unwilling to assume the risk of water being cut off by the groundwater district that regulates the supply. We are unwilling to ask our ratepayers to absorb the cost of a project with potentially no water.”

The request for new water supplies issued by SAWS was meant to shift all risk to a private developer, calling for the developer to build the project and deliver water to a local SAWS pump station.

In light of all this, SAWS announced it would recommend to its Board of Trustees that it accept none of the proposals and instead focus on an expansion of its brackish water desalination plans. SAWS also announced it had begun exploring the possibility of working in conjunction with the city's energy utility, City Public Service Energy, to co-locate a new gas-fired power plant at the brackish desalination site currently under construction. This would have benefits for both utilities - the power plant would be used to meet peak demands and during off-peak hours, the energy could be directed towards water production and purification. In return, some of the water produced would be used to cool the power plant. As currently envisioned, the expansion could eventually add up to 50,000 acre-feet per year to city supplies, and it would be available for centuries.

Not everyone was immediately sold on the idea of expanding desalination instead of accepting one of the private sector proposals offered for new supplies. Mayor Julian Castro said he was open to support desalination as a way for San Antonio to "control our own destiny", but he also wanted to keep the door open to purchase of other supplies. Long-time water advocate Weir Labatt also said he supported desalination but feared the city might fumble yet another chance to buy water from outside the region. "San Antonio had had a history of failed attempts to secure additional water," he said. "What I hope is this is not another chapter in that same story. I'm afraid it might be."

Others pointed out that shifting to expanded desalination could be seen as a shrewd adaptive response to the availability of technologies that were not economical until recently. Another benefit of a brackish desalination expansion is that it offers the potential to phase in capacity as needed in the future, so that investment could be matched to need.

The business community responded to SAWS announcement by releasing a study that spelled out dire economic consequences if only a small shortfall of water were to occur (see study). SAWS countered by pointing out that water for business and industry would never be cut because it has the supplies to support economic growth. In a statement SAWS said "The only cuts we require of our customers is for lawn and landscape irrigation."

In any case, SAWS Board voted to continue discussions with Abenoga Water, but also defended the staff recommendation. Chairman Berto Guerra said "While I appreciate comments from various members of the public, I do not want to commit our ratepayers to $85 million per year for 30 years for a project that may or may not deliver on its promise. We stand together as a Board. We stand behind our Mayor. We stand behind Robert Puente."

January 2014

Historic well at Hot Wells plugged

In the last week of January, work was underway to plug the historic artesian flowing well at Hot Wells. The legendary Hot Wells site was one of the first places where an Edwards well was drilled, in 1892, to supply the Southwestern Lunatic Asylum (later known as the San Antonio State Hospital). The water was hot and sulfurous and deemed unfit to supply the Asylum, but others recognized the potential for a health resort based on curative waters, so the site was developed into a hotel and spa instead. For more on the history, see the Hot Wells page.

Sale of Bat Cave land falls through

In early January the Stratford Land investment company, which had previously indicated it intended to buy and develop the property near Bracken Cave, announded it had changed its mind. A coalition of environmental groups and local officials continued to look for ways to raise funding to preserve all or part of the property. Regarding Stratford's backing away from the deal, Councilman Ron Nirenberg said "It reinforces the belief that this land is of special interest to the public."

J-17 starts year at lowest level since the 1950s, but these times are hotter and drier

The Bexar county J-17 Index Well started 2014 at just above 640', which is the lowest start since the drought of record in the 1950s, and that is something to think about. However, the level at the beginning of the year is not really a good predictor of what it will be for the rest of the year, because of the variability of our rainfall. Speaking of variability, there is another data set that should be more alarming than the year-start J-17 level. Let's look at an excerpt from the Climate Page:

One of the expected consequences of climate change is greater extremes and increased variability, with more intense periods of hot and dry weather, and also larger floods. The summertime rainfall and temperature patterns of the last several years seem to bear this out. In the graph below, the drought years of the 1950s are clustered rather close together. More recently, 2006 was very hot and dry, but it was nothing compared with 2009 and 2011. At the other extreme is 2007, the wettest summer on record and also one of the coolest. 2012 was both warm and wet, perfect conditions for mosquitos that brought Texas the most active and lethal outbreak of West Nile virus in the state's history. While the variability expected from climate change seems evident, by 2013 it is also clear there is an emerging cluster of hot and dry years that exceed anything experienced in the 1950s drought. Four of the last eight summers were both hotter and drier than the worst of the 1950s drought.