Managers Discuss Hill Country’s Water Resources and the Drought
May 22, 2014
By Colleen Schreiber
SAN ANTONIO – The Trinity Aquifer and the Upper Guadalupe River are major components of the hill country’s available water supply. While these water resources typically do not receive as much attention as the more prominent Edwards Aquifer, for example, with the rapidly growing population in this part of the state their importance has never been more crucial.
Ray Buck has served as the general manager for the Upper Guadalupe River Authority since 2005. He told listeners attending the CLE-International Texas water law conference here what’s been happening in the Upper Guadalupe River basin and how drouth, in particular, is impacting the water supply planning process in this region of the state.
About 64 percent of the drainage area for the Upper Guadalupe River above Canyon Lake, which encompasses some 1400 square miles, sits in Kerr County. A smaller percentage is in Kendall, Comal, Bandera, Blanco and Gillespie counties.
The largest city in the upper basin watershed, Buck noted, is Kerrville, population 23,000. Next is the City of Canyon Lake. Nearly all the water in the upper basin is reserved for Canyon Lake, yet 57 percent of the inflows into Canyon Lake originate from the Guadalupe River in Kerr County.
As for groundwater resources, the regional aquifers are the Edwards-Trinity, the Trinity, the Edwards, and the Carrizo Aquifer. The South Fork, North Fork and Johnson Creek are three branches that come out of the Edwards Aquifer and feed the Guadalupe, which then flows into Canyon Lake.
In Kerr County, the Guadalupe starts from the Edwards Trinity Aquifer, an Edwards formation which lies right on top of the Upper Glen Rose.
“One hundred percent of the flow of the Guadalupe River through Kerr County comes from that aquifer,” he pointed out.
One critical use of the Guadalupe River is for recreation purposes. Summer camps in Kerr County draw about $32 million in annual revenue.
“The river is vitally important to our survival, but more important, the river is a public water supply, and we could not grow or be where we are today without it,” Buck stressed.
Turning to the drouth and the impact it’s having on water supplies, he first pointed out that 64 percent of the state is considered to be in a moderate drouth. The drouth in this area, Buck said, really started in 2008, and rainfall since then has been highly erratic. In 2007 Kerr County had 51 inches of rain; in 2008 it dropped to 15 inches. The following two years were about average with 33 and 29 inches. The norm, which he contended is a misnomer, is 31 inches.
For many, 2011 was a devastating year; Kerr County recorded only 13 inches.
The annual mean flow for the Guadalupe River at Kerrville is 132 cubic feet per second. In 2008, with only 15 inches of rain, the flow was 74 cfs, considerably below the annual mean. In 2009 it dropped further, but in 2010 there was a tremendous jump to 123 cfs. Rainfall in 2009 and 2010 was 33 and 29 inches, respectively.
“The take-home is that we see an immediate impact from rainfall in Kerr County to the Guadalupe River. The problem is that since 2011 the river has continued to drop, and that is a critical factor affecting the growth and the future of the city of Kerrville,” he stressed.
Not only has their primary surface water supply been impacted by the extenuating drouth, so too have the groundwater supplies in Kerr County in the Upper Guadalupe River basin.
“We’re seeing a downward trend in groundwater levels. In 2013 we started out considerably below the historic median, and we’ve never really recovered.”
In fact, he said, a number of water wells in the eastern part of the county are currently dry.
“We’re often asked by local media if this is worse than the 1950s drouth. We have all different kinds of drouth, but simply looking at rainfall deficit, in 1950 rainfall was 23 inches, so the deficit was eight inches; in 2008 we had 15 inches, so the deficit was 16 inches,” said Buck. “In 2009 we had 33 inches, so we increased the position from negative 16 to negative 14. But then by the end of 2013, looking at rainfall deficit alone, this current drouth in our area is worse than the 1950s drouth. And remember, rainfall deficit is directly tied to the river flow.”
Buck briefly touched on what Kerrville has done in terms of water planning. In the late 1970s the city was using water from the Trinity Aquifer in Kerr County. That supply simply wasn’t keeping pace with the needs. Thus UGRA and city officials decided that the best course of action would be to go to surface water. In 1981 a surface water treatment plant was brought on line, and between 1982 and 1990 groundwater levels rebounded more than 250 feet.
During normal rainfall years about 80 percent of Kerrville’s total water supply comes from the river. Some is direct use and some goes into aquifer storage and recovery. The other 20 percent is groundwater.
“Where we are today, about 65 percent of Kerrville’s needs come from the river, and potential water well use has gone to 25 percent. Then we’re pulling out of the ASR at 10 percent,” he explained. “The concern that we have, with the river running at 31 CFS right now, is that there’s not a lot of flow to continue to use the river.”
On paper, Buck said, the City of Kerrville has almost 6000 acre-feet of water rights and about 4000 acre-feet of groundwater rights. The problem is that in 2011-12 Kerrville drained their water supply lake. So while on paper it looks like they have excess supplies, the fact that they currently use about 4000 acre-feet of water annually means that they are or will be short of water soon.
“Our concern in water planning is that conjunctive use was our salvation in the past,” said Buck. “We’re looking at a bleak future if this drouth doesn’t break, because we don’t have enough water to meet our current or future water needs. What is saving us right now is ASR,” Buck told listeners. “About 10 percent of our use right now is ASR. We currently have two ASR wells on line that store about 750 acre-feet a year. Right now we still have about 2000 acre-feet in the ASR, and we’re working on a third ASR that should hold about 375 acre-feet.”
Micah Voulgaris is the general manager of the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District, headquartered in Kendall County, a position he’s held since 2003. In offering an overview of the CCGCD, Voulgaris first noted that the hill country was declared a priority groundwater area in 1990. As he explained, that designation meant that by 2025 the area would experience critical groundwater problems. The Cow Creek GCD was created as a temporary District in 1999 and ratified in 2001 as a permanent district by the Texas legislature, subject to voter approval. In 2002 citizens were asked to vote on whether they wanted a local groundwater district. The next question on the ballot was “Do you want to fund a groundwater district through an ad valorem property tax?”
“Of course everyone wanted to have local control, but no one wanted to pay for it, so we (CCGCD) were created, but we weren’t funded,” Voulgaris told listeners.
In 2003, to help cover the expenses of the district, CCGCD began collecting an annual well fee. A letter was sent to every property owner who had a well listed as an improvement on their property. The fee was $25 for an exempt well and $250 for a non-exempt well. They were also to pay $10 an acre-foot for every acre-foot pumped.
“People thought it was a hoax or a scam,” said Voulgaris. “I literally talked to about 5000 people on the phone during the next two-year period.”
Beginning in 2006 the district attempted three times to pass a property valuation tax to fund the district. The first time they tried for a three-cent tax; the second attempt was a cent and a half, and on the third attempt citizens passed a half-cent per $100 property valuation.
In 2012 Kendall County median household income was $68,000, the seventh highest median household income in the state.
“People who have money are moving to Boerne and people who have high-end homes and homes on golf courses like to have green grass, and that requires water,” said Voulgaris.
Aqua-Texas, he added, has a lot of systems in the Cow Creek district. One customer is a gated community with three-acre lots.
“Their water use is about 600 to 700 gallons per day per connection,” Voulgaris told listeners.
“Aqua-Texas also provides water to mobile home parks. The service is the same except that these customers use about 130 gallons of water per connection. So it’s pretty easy to see how affluence affects water use.”
The biggest water use is for lawn water.
“You can say its domestic use or exempt use, but in the summer these people aren’t drinking five to six times the amount of water used at other times of the year.”
Like Buck, he pointed to the drouth, noting that within the confines of CCGCD there are three different extremes of the drouth. On the west end of the county it’s extreme; in the middle swath of the county it is severe, and those in the eastern portion are experiencing moderate drouth.
CCGCD has been monitoring wells since 2000. In 2003 the Middle Trinity wells, 10 or so, averaged 1203.67 feet above sea level. Today there are 40 monitor wells that Voulgaris checks twice a month, and that data indicates that over the past decade there has been about a 35-foot drawdown.
In 2008 CCGCD adopted a Desired Future Condition of a 30-foot drawdown on the Trinity over the next 50 years.
“We’re going to bust our DFC not even pumping our MAG.”
Voulgaris opined that in CCGCD and in the hill country in general, groundwater and surface water are essentially one in the same.
“It just goes in and out of the ground in different places, that’s all. We have to figure out a way for the law to recognize that. I’ve had people tell me that spring flow is not really my problem because when it comes to the surface its surface water. I’d hate to be the one in charge when all the springs run dry in the hill country,” he told listeners.
He pointed out that there is only one river — the Guadalupe — that flows into the CCGCD.
“Everything else — every creek or stream in the hill country — probably originated from a spring. When the streams stop flowing, they’re not contributing to the river.”
Borrowing some data from the UGRA, he showed a graph which depicted that surface water/groundwater interaction. The median flow over a nine-year period is 134 cfs. In March 2014 that median flow had dropped to 36 cfs. Over that same period the median flow at Spring Branch was 198 cfs; today it is 34 cfs.
“We’ll see nine cfs this summer in Comfort,” Voulgaris insisted, “and it will be zero at Spring Branch. The point is that the little bit of water that is flowing into the river isn’t making it downstream.”
This is important, in part, because of the Western Canyon Regional Water Supply Project, a San Antonio Water Systems project that depends on firm yields in Canyon Lake, Voulgaris said.
In March 1998, SAWS approved a contract with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to buy surface water from Canyon Lake. According to the SAWS website, the Western Canyon project adds another 2.3 billion gallons per year (an average of 7100 acre-feet per year) to San Antonio’s water supply. SAWS will always receive a minimum of 4000 acre-feet per year during the term of the contract (40 years). Over the term of the contract, SAWS’ average take is approximately 7100 acre-feet per year.
How it impacts Kerr and surrounding counties, Voulgaris explained, is that CCGCD is allowing spring flow to go downriver into Canyon Lake. They then buy that water back from Guadalupe Blanco River Authority as surface water.
“That’s ultimately going to be affected if spring flow gets cut off in the hill country,” he reiterated.
“The City of Boerne has about 3600 acre-feet that they ultimately plan on that they have reserved from GBRA, and they’re using about 975 acre-feet from GBRA. They have a permit from us for about 1800 acre-feet,” he said. “Historically, the most the City of Boerne has ever pumped is about a 1000 acre-feet. Once they started taking on this GBRA water, they had to cut back on their groundwater production, so that’s a good thing for us.”
Voulgaris added that while Canyon Lake levels are not of particular concern at the moment, he does worry if another drouth like the seven-year drouth of the 1950s returns. All of the water projects, he pointed out, are based on that historic drouth.
“There were only 5000 people living in Kendall County during that historic drouth, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t watering their lawns and putting in swimming pools.”
In fact, from 1980 to 2005 Kendall County population grew 146 percent whereas the rest of the state grew about 55 percent.
“Today we have seven times the people living here, and we’re probably using seven times the water,” Voulgaris told listeners.
He predicted, too, that people are not likely going to stop moving to places like Boerne and Kerrville, which is why water projection numbers for Region L are so critical.
“I really think our exempt use is going to exceed our MAG, which is 9500 acre-feet,” Voulgaris told listeners, “and someday exempt use will exceed that 30-foot DFC. We adopted a DFC standalone in our GMA which said we wanted zero drawdown on the Edwards Trinity Plateau in western Kendall County, and that resulted in a DFC of 300 acre-feet for the Edwards. Given that we’re going to triple our population over the next 50 years, it’s pretty clear we’ll run short of water.”
He provided still more data, this from the Texas Water Development Board, which tracks actual rainfall and evaporation rates. The average annual precipitation for Kendall County is 30 inches and the evaporation rate is about 54 inches. In 2011 it was 73 inches. He noted, too, that from 1940 to present there was only one time that precipitation exceeded evaporation.
And, he said, while an average is touted, the data clearly indicates that there is no such thing as an average year. The Dust bowl, he said, was not particularly significant in the hill country, but during the drouth of the 1950s annual rainfall was 20 percent below the annual average.
The 1970s were the “good ol’ days,” Voulgaris said. “My father-in-law likes to say it was nice and green then before all the people moved in here, but what we know is that it was because it was a period of above average annual rainfall.”
The drouth of the 1990s brought people back to reality, and it was this drouth, he told listeners, that pushed the powers that be to declare the hill country a priority groundwater management area.
From 2000-2007 the area again enjoyed above average annual rainfall.
“That was when I used to be able to float down the river and we could see water flowing over the dam,” he reminded.
Again, the point he was making was that there is really no “average” condition.
“The last eight years it’s been drouth, flood, drouth, flood, drouth …”
The floods, he said, are basically what sustains the area.
Turning to water conservation and drouth contingency planning, Voulgaris told listeners that in CCGCD exempt wells (domestic and livestock) have rules that they, too, must follow because, after all, exempt use is their biggest user of water.
“Why have a groundwater district at all if you can’t regulate the majority of the water in your district?” said Voulgaris. “The way I look at is we’re not telling people they can’t pump water; we’re telling them how to use the water they’re pumping. If they start putting water out on their grass and not on their watering day, that’s what we don’t agree with.”
Voulgaris said that if they get to the point that they’re talking about drouth, it’s really already too late.
“We don’t have to be in a dire situation to get into conservation practices mode,” he stressed.
Education, Voulgaris added, is critical.
“Look at the facts and make a decision for yourself.”
CCGCD’s manager also opined on various terminology, such as beneficial use versus reasonable use and also the term “exempt”. CCGCD’s rules use the term “reasonable” use rather than beneficial use. However, he acknowledged, the word “reasonable” is not used in the Water Code.
“I get called out on that, but beneficial use is any use that’s beneficial to the user, which by that term is pretty much anything.
“I think we really need to look at what does exempt mean,” he continued, “and what really is beneficial use. If your evaporation rate is twice what the average annual rainfall is putting water into surface water reservoirs, what is really beneficial use?
“Our MAG for the Trinity Aquifer is 9500 acre-feet. We’re pumping about two percent of that right now. Is that realistic? There might be a lot of water down there, but at what cost? We’re going to dry up the rivers, and to me that’s a major issue that people need to think about,” he concluded.