Rural Texas landowners who lost water access due to San Antonio pipeline could soon get relief
By Erin Douglas, The Texas Tribune
“Rural Texas landowners who lost water access due to San Antonio pipeline could soon get relief” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Rural landowners in Lee County, a rural area east of Austin, could soon be compensated after they lost access to water as a result of San Antonio’s groundwater pumping in their area.
Senate Bill 1080, which received preliminary approval by the House on Tuesday, would allow the groundwater management district that covers Lee and Bastrop counties to create a program to compensate landowners for the costs of lowering their water well pumps so they can reach the now-deeper water.
In 2020, the 150-mile Vista Ridge pipeline began transporting water southward from Burleson County to San Antonio’s growing metro region. Within a year, residents near the pumping station, most of whom rely on private water wells, began to notice their faucets sputtering with air. Groundwater levels in the area near Vista Ridge’s wells plummeted. Some wells saw a water level drop of close to 50%, local groundwater data shows.
As climate change — which enhances droughts and increases temperatures, and thus, evaporation rates — puts water from rivers and reservoirs under strain, groundwater is playing an increasingly important role in Texas’ water supply. Texas is the third-largest groundwater pumper in the nation, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
In 2021, The Texas Tribune reported that some residents in Lee County had spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on lowering and upgrading their pumps to reach water.
“The problem in Lee County continues, and now it appears that some wells may need to be rebuilt or replaced entirely,” Elvis Hernandez, president of the board of directors for the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District, told the House Natural Resources Committee during a hearing on the bill in April. The water level in some wells has dropped as much as 185 feet since 2020, Hernandez said.
Groundwater laws in Texas essentially allow anyone who owns or leases land to pump as much underground water as they want, regardless of whether it affects neighboring properties. Local groundwater districts, which typically follow county lines, can permit and restrict water pumping to conserve it for the future. But aquifers often cross district boundaries, and districts can’t regulate pumping outside of their jurisdiction.
The Lost Pines Groundwater District, for example, oversees Lee County, but it could not restrict the Vista Ridge Project, which is located just across the county line in Burleson County.
“Groundwater districts around the state are walking a tough tightrope,” Greg Ellis, an attorney for the Lost Pines district, told the committee at the April hearing. “Where we can, we should limit pumping to a level that is sustainable for the long term in order to make sure everybody continues to have water in perpetuity.”
The local bill, authored by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, would authorize the Lost Pines Groundwater District to create a program to help residents repair or replace water wells impacted by the declining water levels, using existing fees collected by the groundwater district to fund it. It still requires a final vote from the House before it goes back to the Senate to review an amendment made to the bill on the floor of the House on Tuesday. If the Senate approves — or the two sides agree on a compromise bill — Gov. Greg Abbott could then sign it into effect.
The House Committee on Natural Resources had examined the Vista Ridge Project in its interim report before the legislative session began and called it an example of large-scale groundwater transfers from rural areas to urban areas as the state’s population booms.
“Despite being assured that these aquifers remain healthy and plentiful, this fact is not reassuring to affected landowners who face the significant financial burden of deepening their wells and dropping their pumps,” the committee report said. “There is no doubt that Vista Ridge has impacted other surrounding wells.”
The committee recommended the Legislature expand assistance programs and set aside more funds toward groundwater planning, among other measures.
“It is not 1904, and a landowner’s only remedy shouldn’t be to pay out of pocket for a bigger, deeper well,” the report said.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/16/texas-bill-water-wells-pipeline-san-antonio-lee-county/.
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