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Edwards Aquifer News for 2017

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December 2017

County Commissioners approve $19.8 million for next phase of San Pedro Creek project

On December 19, Bexar County Commissioners authorized $19.8 million for demolition and utility work for the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project's segment between Houston and Nueva streets. They also approved several design changes, including scrapping plans for an ampitheatre behind the Alameda Theater and a footbridge at the Spanish Governor's Palace.

Regarding the elimination of the ampitheatre, project manager Kerry Averyt said "We believe that a new performance plaza, as opposed to an ampitheatre, would be more flexible and provide more versatility for events that will be conducted there."

The changes will reduce the project cost by more than $7 million.

San Pedro Springs and the creek below are one of the most underappreciated aspect of San Antonio's rich history. For the full write-up on these important places, see the San Pedro Springs page.

November 2017

UTSA researchers receive funding to study Edwards Aquifer fecal contamination

On November 16, UTSA announced that professors Vikram Kapoor and Drew Johnson were awarded a $692,452 funding agreement to design and implement a way to track fecal bacteria in the Edwards Aquifer. The agreement was developed through the city's Edwards Aquifer Protection Program, which citizens have voted four times to fund.

“Some of the sources that contribute to bacteria in aquifer systems are uncharacterized and uncontrollable,” said Kapoor. “San Antonio is a forward-thinking city and UTSA is a forward-thinking university which is why we seek to identify sources that can be characterized and controlled. We’re going to use innovative molecular techniques to get ahead of any issues that could arise.”

The project team will spend the next two years collecting samples over several different regions of the Edwards Aquifer. The researchers will then work to identify specific DNA markers that are found in fecal bacteria to determine if there’s contamination in the Aquifer, to evaluate the level of contamination if present, and to accurately locate where it originated in the Aquifer.

“Understanding and identifying the sources of surface and groundwater fecal contamination is paramount to protecting water quality and mitigating pollution and risk to human health,” said Kapoor. “We will determine whether there’s fecal contamination, then we’ll advise the City on how to mitigate it.”

Kapoor’s work is the first approach of its kind to studying fecal contaminants in the Edwards Aquifer. Once the scientific testing is complete, his project will include outreach efforts to educate the public, especially homeowners, on how to keep local water resources safe from contamination.

October 2017

New Braunfels to resume enforcement of "can ban"

On October 30, New Braunfels announced that it would resume enforcement of its "can ban" on November 1 for disposable food and beverage containers on the Comal River and a small portion of the Guadalupe River that passes through the city, and it erected signs informing tubers.

Earlier in the month, the Texas Supreme Court refused to bar the city from enforcing the ban, but also requested a full briefing, so the issue was not quite settled yet. The Court may decide to hear the whole case.

The controversy first erupted in August of 2011 when the container ban was passed by the New Braunfels City Council. Opponents promised a lawsuit and a petition drive to overturn the measure. The issue was placed on the November 8 ballot and voters approved the ban by 58%. It remained to be seen whether the ban would stick, however, because a 1993 state law prohibits cities from banning disposable containers. A lawsuit was filed by a group of local business owners and residents in state district court. In February of 2012, that suit was dropped and another was filed in Austin, also naming two state officials as defendants, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery. Attorney Jim Ewbank said that as Land Commissioner, Patterson was responsible for state owned waterways, and Vickery is charged with managing municipal solid waste.

Over the Memorial Day weekend in 2012, a noticeable reduction in the amount of trash in the Comal River was attributed to the new ban on disposable containers, but not everyone was pleased. Commercial river outfitters who rent inner tubes claimed that trash was down simply because crowds were smaller. They noticed that rentals were down, even though weather and tubing conditons were excellent. Apparently some tubers simply went to stretches of the Guadalupe River outside the New Braunfels city limits, where beer cans were not banned.

In January of 2014, state District Judge Don Burgess ruled the New Braunfels can ban is unconstitutional and unenforceable. Jim Ewbank, lawyer for the water recreation interests that sued the city, said "We hope that, now that the court has spoken, declaring these ordinances unconstitutional, we can sit down with the city and try to work out a solution that addresses everybody's goals and purposes." New Braunfels said it would appeal the ruling. The first major holiday after the ruling was Memorial Day in May of 2014, and tubers hit the river with cans in hand. The city was providing free mesh bags through the tube outfitters for people to collect their trash in, and everything seemed under control. Anybody who finds themsef in Texas is at least part Texan, and Texans know you don't trash the river by "sinking your empties." If any Texans witness such behavior, it is expected they will put a stop to it and send the offender back to New York.

In May of 2017, a state appeals court overturned the 2014 decision by Judge Don Burgess in favor of river businesses on New Braunfels' "can ban" and the city considered how to resume enforcement of the ordinance. The Third Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs in the case had no legal standing challenge the ban in the first place and therefore Judge Burgess did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case. Although the plaintiffs had evidence they'd lost business, the court found no harm occurred to a vested property right, because the ordinance does not prohibit the businesses from selling disposable containers.

Regarding the re-enforcement and signs, lawyer Jim Ewbank said "My clients do not believe it is a good use of taxpayers' dollars to spend money on signs and instructions and training when the Supreme Court may find it to be unnecessary."

San Antonio moves to Year Round Water Restrictions

On October 17 San Antonio ended Stage I Drought Restrictions and moved to the Year Round level. Rain and cool fall weather resulted in the J-17 Index Well rising to a high enough level that ending Stage I was appropriate. Some things to remember when Year Round rules are in place:

  • Under Year-Round guidelines, all fountains – whether commercial or residential or indoor or outdoor – are allowed. 
  • Landscape watering with an irrigation system or sprinkler is permitted any day of the week before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m. 
  • Hand watering with a hand-held hose, drip irrigation, soaker hose or bucket is permitted any time of day. 
  • Washing impervious cover such as parking lots, driveways, streets or sidewalks is permitted without runoff to avoid water waste. 
  • Water waste is prohibited at all times. Allowing water to run off into a gutter, ditch, or drain or failing to repair a controllable leak is considered water waste. 
  • Residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural Edwards Aquifer water users should use common sense and best practices to avoid water waste. 
  • The use of commercial vehicle wash facilities is permitted any day.

July 2017

San Antonio moves to Stage 1 Water Restrictions

On July 14, with the J-17 index well dropping below a 10-day average of 650', San Antonio declared Stage 1 Water Restrictions.

It marked the first time since December of 2015 that SAWS' customers have been required to limit landscape watering with a irrigation system, sprinkler, or soaker hose to one day per week, depending on the last digit of your home address (see details). Hand watering with a hand-held hose, drip irrigation, bucket, or watering can is permitted any time and any day.

SAWS Conservation Director Karen Guz said "Everybody should know that you can still water your landscape and you can still keep it healthy, but there are rules now."

Over the last several decades, SAWS has brought 10 new water sources online but faces cutbacks in Edwards Aquifer pumping so that springflows at Comal and San Marcos springs are maintained for endangered species habitats.

Since Edwards Aquifer pumping limits were first imposed in the 1990s, SAWS customers have responded so well to calls for conservation that San Antonio has developed a worldwide reputation for water stewardship and resource management. During one recent week, visitors from Nigeria and Turkmenistan called on SAWS to explore firsthand the many ways that customers have become engaged in responsibly managing the city's water supplies. It's really the people of San Antonio that have made the city a destination for water managers from all over the globe.

June 2017

Zebra mussels discovered in Canyon Lake

On June 12, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority announced that tests on larvae had confirmed the presence of Zebra mussels in Canyon Lake. Zebra mussels are an invasive species of clam-like bi-valve that originated in Eurasia and were first detected in Texas waters in 2009. They can form large colonies that clog water intakes and hamper hydroelectric dam operations.

For the Canyon Lake area, the concerns are the mussels might invade the endangered species habitats in Comal and San Marcos springs and might impact recreation because of their sharp shells. Farther downstream, they could interfere with hydroelectic dams operated by GBRA, and they might also impact the habitat of other mussel species which the USFWS has already determined should be listed as endangered.

The bottom line is right now we do not know what impact Zebra mussels will have. Water temperatures in south Texas are near the upper end of the temperature range the mussels can tolerate, so it's possible they might be present but never really thrive.

People that been following Edwards issues for a long time may remember the concern over the invasive Giant ramshorn snail in Landa Lake in the 1990s. There was fear the snails would take over the Lake and eliminate Fountain Darter habitat. In the end, after an initial population explosion, native wildlife decided the snails were good eating and the snail populations have remained in check.

Texas General Land Office sues over Golden-cheeked Warbler

On June 5, the Texas Public Policy Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Texas General Land Office that challenges the classification of the Golden-cheeked Warbler as endangered. This is one of the species the Southern Edwards Habitat Conservation Plan is designed to protect (see the News item below and the full write on the Plan on the Laws and Regulations page.)

In an online video produced by the conservative think-tank Foundation, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush says "Most of us agree that the American dream is about being left alone and living a life that's independent of others. Even more important than the individual, it's about family. It's about heritage. It's about what I think Texas is all about."

Iliana Pena, conservation director for Audubon Texas, called the video "misleading". She said "Ironically, the video represents an idyllic Hill Country lifestyle in which the warbler and landowners live in harmony."

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges the USFWS has not properly follow environmental law because it has not designated critical habitat for the Warbler since it was added to the endangered species list in 1990. It also says the service did not properly consider a 2015 study that estimated there are five times more of the birds in Texas than scientists previously thought. In 2016, the USFWS determined those who wanted federal protections for the bird removed "did not present substantial information that delisting is warranted."

It also noted that "habitat destruction, fragmentation, and degradation remain a real and significant threat to the continued existence of the Warbler."

May 2017

EPA begins study of Live Oak chemical plant pollution

On May 30, the Houston Chronicle reported the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun an expected "remedial investigation" into potential pollution of soil, water, sediment, and air from a former chemical plant in Live Oak.

Last September, EPA added the site to the National Priorities List, which helps EPA prioritize cleanup work and allocate funding for polluted sites across the country under the Superfund program.

There is abandoned Edwards well on the property that could provide a pathway for contamination, although contamination from the site has yet been found in the Edwards. Live Oak officials said state testing has shown no cause for concern in nearby groundwater wells.

When the story was first reported last September, Anne Hayden, spokeswoman for the San Antonio Water System, said SAWS closest distribution points are more than two miles away, and that TCEQ sampling results from SAWS sites are below the detection limits of the tests. "Because SAWS has a large system with over seven sources of water, if there was a question concerning a well, we could be able to take it offline," she said. "Of course, this would be at the direction of, or in consultation with, the state."

The former Eldorado Chemical Company operated on the site for nearly 30 years, making paint strippers and cleaners for the aerospace industry.

New Braunfels "can ban" back in place

Back in the summer of 2011, a controversy erupted over a container ban passed by the city of New Braunfels. On August 22 of that year, the city banned disposable food and beverage containers on the Comal River and a small portion of the Guadalupe River that passes through the city. Opponents promised a lawsuit and a petition drive to overturn the measure. The issue was placed on the November 8, 2011 ballot and voters approved the ban by 58%.

In February of 2012, a lawsuit was filed in Austin by river businesses and in January of 2014, state District Judge Don Burgess ruled the New Braunfels "can ban" is unconstitutional and unenforceable. New Braunfels said it would appeal the ruling.

In May of 2017, a state appeals court overturned the 2014 decision by Judge Burgess in favor of river businesses and the city was considering how to resume enforcement of the ordinance. The Third Court of Appeals ruled the plaintiffs in the case had no legal standing challenge the ban in the first place and therefore Judge Burgess did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.

April 2017

Study confirms once-a-week watering would not save much water, cause rate increase

On April 12 consultants from the Freese and Nichols firm presented evidence to a City Council committee that imposing once-a-week outdoor watering restrictions would not save much water. They reported that if such restrictions had been in place from 2006 to 2016, water use would have been reduced by only 1.25 percent. The loss of water sales would have required a 1.4 percent rate increase to make up for revenues that are necessary to operate and maintain the water system.

Regarding once-a-week limits, SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente said "It's just something that we feel is not needed. It is not something that helps our financial situation, and it's not something that helps our [water] inventory. It is really a tool that we should use when it's needed, and oftentimes it's not needed."

The proposal for once-a-week limits was offered by District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, who said the city must do everything possible to use water responsibly as SAWS develops new, more expensive supplies. At the committee meeting city staff read a letter from him in which he said his proposal was in part about promoting a conservation ethic among some of the largest residential water users.

District 9 Councilman Joe Krier said once-a-week limits was a "feel-good proposal" that could harm property values if it leads to dead landscapes.

Work begins on Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan

On April 11, an oversight committee for the Southern Edwards Habitat Conservation Plan held its first meeting and planned to begin accepting projects for enrollment. The plan is designed to allow land-swapping to both protect habitat for nine endangered species and allow development. It has been in the works since 2009 and was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in December of 2015. For the full story of the Plan's development and what it means for the region, see the write-up on the Laws and Regulations page.

March 2017

2,830 more acres over Edwards Aquifer protected

On March 30 the San Antonio City Council unanimously approved payments of more than $7.6 million to property owners for a conservation easement on 2,830 acres of sensitive land in Medina and Bandera counties. The acreage is known as the Middle Verde Ranch and is situated over the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone.

When people think about Aquifer protection, they usually think of the Recharge Zone. But most of the water that recharges the Aquifer comes FROM the Contributing Zone. So that is an important area to protect as well, especially where it is very close to the Recharge Zone.

The purchase of the conservation easement will ensure the land is never developed and is the latest acquisition using funds from a voter-approved 1/8 cent sales tax. So far the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program has protected 146,000 acres. Since first approved by voters in 2000, the program has become an international model for effective water source protection that utilizes citizen initiative and market forces. Since 2000, the tax has been re-approved by voters three times, most recently in May 2015.

January 2017

SAWS opens new desalination plant in south Bexar county

On January 28, water officials and dignitaries gathered in south Bexar county to celebrate San Antonio's march toward water sustainability with the opening of SAWS' new desalination facility.

This innovative new strategy taps a virtually unused water resource - almost 900 trillion gallons of slightly salty groundwater are estimated to exist in Texas. In San Antonio's case, brackish groundwater is sourced from the Lower Wilcox formation, which yields water that is only about 5% as salty as ocean water. The low salt content and location of this water close to town make it much more cost effective to treat and transport as compared to ocean water.

The SAWS plant can currently produce up to 12 million gallons per day, but the facility was sized so that two additional phases can increase the volume to 30 million gallons per day as necessary in the future.

At the same site, SAWS stores excess Edwards Aquifer in times of plenty for use during droughts, and it also produces and treats up to 30 million gallons per day of Carrizo Aquifer water. Together, these three sources can meet about 20% of average daily demand.

For all the details on San Antonio's project and a process diagram, see the Desalination page.

Reward offered in case of missing salamanders

By late January there were no leads in the case of hundreds of Texas Blind Salamanders that went missing in December from the federal refuge facility in San Marcos, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered a reward of $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible.

Officials remained unsure, however, if the disappearance was actually a theft. Dealers of reptiles and snakes pointed out there is not really a market for salamanders because collectors prefer large, colorful, presentation-type species, not small and pale ones.

Jeff Barringer, an online snake and amphibian dealer, told the Express-News "If it was a theft, it's the most senseless theft in the reptile industry I've ever heard of." One possibility, Barringer said, is that something happened that killed off the salamanders in their tank and they decomposed in a matter of days. Fish and Wildlife staff had been away from the refuge for several days during the Thanksgiving holidays and noticed the salamders were missing on their return.

San Antonio joins Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan

On January 19, San Antonio City Council voted to join the Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan, a method to allow development in Bexar county on land that contains endangered species habitat by preserving similar land elsewhere. For the full story of the Plan's development and what it means for the region, see the write-up on the Laws and Regulations page.

Treatment experts say reversal of recycled water permit not really about Edwards

On January 17, Judge Amy Clark Meachum of the 201st District Court reversed a decision by TCEQ to issue a recycled water discharge permit to the Johnson Ranch Municipal Utility District and remanded the case back to the agency for further proceedings.

The case involved an application by the utility district to discharge up to 350,000 gallons of treated water daily into a ditch that carries it across a low area on an adjoining property and then to Cibolo Creek, which recharges the Edwards Aquifer. TCEQ may issue such permits to discharge to State watercourses. It does a thorough modeling analysis of the impacts the water will have on receiving streams and then develops permit limitations that will be protective of the stream. In this case, none of that was at issue - the question was whether the discharge was to a State-owned watercourse or onto the private property of the District's neighbor. Judge Meachum decided the course in which the water would flow lacked features that made it a State watercourse, so TCEQ had erred when it issued a permit.

The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, which was a party to the suit, hailed the decision as a victory. Executive Director Annalisa Peace said the practice of recharging the Edwards Aquifer with treated effluent "has to stop."

Treatment experts pointed out the quality of water from treatment plants far exceeds that of stormwater runoff, which is the main source of Edwards recharge. Recycled water from these plants is a tremendously valuable resource, with many utilities finding ways to save potable water supplies and reduce Edwards pumpage by using recycled water for non-drinking purposes such as irrigation and in industry. At plants that do advanced treatment involving removal of nitrogen and phosphorous, the water produced exceeds drinking water standards.

In recent years, there has been a number of similar lawsuits filed by environmental groups to prevent recycled water discharges. Treatment experts suggest the real target is development, not the water. To them, it seems unfortunate that environmental groups have sought to vilify recycled water to stymie development. It is misleading and duplicitious to try and give recycled water a bad name when the real goal is to halt the development the plant serves. That will only be counter-productive in the long run to the goal of making greater use of recycled water for human and environmental needs.

It is also not rational or practical to push for bans on discharges of recycled water into streams that recharge groundwater resources because every stream recharges groundwater resources. Experts suggest that if environmental groups believe recycled water can harm aquifers, the correct and honest approach would be to push for treatment standards they feel are protective.