A vital source: Water agencies, northeast suburb of San Antonio aim to bolster water supply as drought continues

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Texas is experiencing its second driest year in 128 years, affecting 23.9 million people across the state, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

Many suburban towns along the I-35 North corridor as well as San Antonio itself get a percentage of their water from the Edwards Aquifer, which has seen water levels drop significantly, to levels never before seen. since 2014.

Cities in northeast San Antonio Metrocom and central Texas could see increased water restrictions in the future as drought worsens in south-central Texas due to a lack of rainfall and high temperatures, according to the National Weather Service.

The San Antonio area, which includes Metrocom’s northeast cities, received 2.1 inches of rain in August and another 0.92 inches of rain through September 6, bringing a total of 8.14 inches of rain up to now this year, more than 13 inches below the normal average, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Runyen.

On September 1, the National Drought Mitigation Center reported that almost all of south-central Texas – 90.5% – has been designated at some level of drought with abnormally dry, D0, being the lowest and exceptional level, D4, with drought being the highest level. .

So far, 5.3% of Texas is in D4, compared to 71.3% of south-central Texas which experienced D4 conditions in November 2011, the last time the state experienced this level of drought.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority remains in Stage 3 of its Critical Period Management Plan – more commonly referred to as water restrictions – which requires anyone authorized to pump water to reduce their usage by 35%. Since late July, the EAA has been teetering toward Stage 4 restrictions, which require a 40% reduction in permitted pumping levels, officials said.

More than 2.5 million people, eight endangered species and several others on the endangered species list, and other animals depend on water from the Edwards Aquifer, which has been identified as one of largest and most unique aquifers in the world by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The J-17 index well in Bexar County is used to monitor and track water levels in the aquifer and is closely correlated to Comal Springs flow levels. The J-17 showing well is more than 23 feet below historical average values ​​for the summer months in the region, according to the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

It would take a significant amount of rain in the northwest region of central Texas to allow drought restrictions to lift. If the region does not have a rainy season until next summer, a dry climate will continue, according to EAA director general Roland Ruiz.

“Barring significant rainfall by early next year, we’re going to be where we are today, except earlier in the year,” Ruiz said. “Because we may not come out of any critical period stage if we don’t have rain.”

Variable water supplies

While San Antonio and much of Bexar County relies heavily on the Edwards Aquifer, the small towns in northeast San Antonio Metrocom each manage water differently and pump water for their residents from a variety of sources. , including the Carrizo, Trinity and Wilcox aquifers.

Schertz has a partnership with Seguin to provide water to residents through the Schertz Seguin Local Government Corporation, with much of the water sourced from the Wilcox Aquifer.

Schertz public works director Suzanne Williams said the drought was not having a significant effect on residents and there were no water restrictions.

“We complete with Edwards Aquifer [water]”, Williams said. “I guess we see Edwards Aquifer as a backup for Schertz.”

Williams said the city also has a relationship with the San Antonio water system, and if they needed additional water, they could get it for an additional cost.

The city has seen explosive growth in recent years, but so far the water supply has been able to keep up, Williams said.

However, Schertz public affairs director Linda Klepper said residents may not have any restrictions at this time, but the city is encouraging them to be aware of the drought and be careful with their water consumption. ‘water. Residents are reminded on social media to conserve and avoid wasting water, she said.

Residents of Selma also have no water restrictions, but San Antonio as well as Garden Ridge, Cibolo and Universal City are all operating under Stage 2 restrictions, which limits the use of a water system. irrigation or sprinkler once a week on a day designated by address between 7 a.m.-11 a.m. and 7 p.m.-11 p.m.

The San Antonio water system, which provides water to most of Bexar County, has remained in Stage 2 restrictions since April and credits its ability to avoid stricter watering rules for its customers to its greater water diversity, citing that only about 50% of its water comes from the Edwards Aquifer, said SAWS water conservation director Karen Guz.

The other 50% comes from a mix of the Vista Ridge Pipeline, the Trinity Aquifer, Canyon Lake, the Carrizo Aquifer and even recycled and stored water, Guz said.

Most of Universal City’s water comes from the Edwards Aquifer — about 3,747 acre-feet — and an additional 800 acre-feet are available from the Carrizo Aquifer, said Randy Luensmann, director of public works. of Universal City.

“So that’s our drought water,” Luensmann said. “I only pump Carrizo in extreme drought.”

Luensmann said if the EAA were to move to Stage 4, it would mean a 40% reduction in Universal City’s annual water allocation, which currently serves 6,600 connections.

“Right now we are calculating and making projections to make sure we have enough water until the end of the year. It is calculated in number of days,” Luensmann said. and we’re still in good shape.”

The drought would have to be more severe for the city to demand greater restrictions from its residents, he said.

“We don’t want to ban outdoor watering, and that’s what the next step would be,” Luensmann said.

While rain is needed across the region, to have a positive effect on Metrocom’s northeast cities, it would need to fall in a certain area of ​​the Edwards Aquifer, he said.

“If it’s above the Edwards, that’s where we want [rain] go over the charging area,” Luensmann said. “Every drop [helps]; really, it is a flood that brings us out of the drought. You hate to say that.

Luensmann pointed to the droughts of 1998 and 2002, when significant flooding ended the droughts.

“I expect history to repeat itself and for us to have more rain,” he said. “I think we’re going to get more pouring rain.”

Water conservation plans

During the second half of August, the northeast Metrocom area and pockets around San Antonio received scattered rainfall just as the Edwards Aquifer Authority prepared to declare the stage 4 of its critical period management plan to impose license reductions in the region.

The plan is put in place to help maintain aquifer and spring flow levels during periods of drought by temporarily reducing the allowable withdrawal amounts of Edwards Aquifer licensees, which include utility companies. public.

In Stage 4 of the plan, licensees in Bexar, Comal and Guadalupe counties must reduce their annual allowable pumping by 40%. In Stage 3, pumping is reduced by 35%.

These minor rain events allowed the EAA to meet Stage 3 restrictions, officials announced Aug. 18.

Chad Norris – Deputy Executive Director of Environmental Science for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s Trinity Reservoir and Aquifer, as well as a member of the Science Committee for the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan – stated that when drought conditions are persistent or spring flows reach a lower flow, certain measures of the conservation plan are implemented.

“Some of these measures involve the use of alternative water sources, reducing dependence on the [Edwards Aquifer] himself,” Norris said. “And these are all designed to maintain spring flows and ensure that they do not drop below a threshold that we have identified as necessary to reduce impacts on [aquatic] species.”

Norris said he expects some of the greatest drought impacts to be felt in small tributaries in Texas that don’t have springs to provide baseflows.

“We have plans like the Edwards Aquifer HCP. Water suppliers have contingency plans in case of drought; municipalities and others have drought measures they are taking to reduce water usage,” Norris said. “I feel like in general we are prepared and not used to droughts like the ones we are experiencing now. But with every drought, you always wait for the next rain. »

Habitat Conservation Plan

The negative effects of the ongoing drought are not limited to water providers and municipalities. The EAA is also responsible for managing spring flows that provide habitats for endangered and threatened species.

Habitat protection has been part of the EAA’s mission since its inception. The creation of the EAA was part of the Texas law put in place after the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit in 1991 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “alleging negligence in providing the necessary protection required by law. on endangered species.

Today, the EAA uses the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, which was first approved by the USFWS in 2013, to govern how the authority will protect the species that live in the Edwards Aquifer as well as the Comal and San Marcos Springs which are federally listed. as endangered and threatened, said Scott Storment, executive director of the EAA’s Department of Threatened and Endangered Species and program manager for the EAHCP.

There are eight endangered species and three threatened species on the list, he said.

Along with the conservation plan, the USFWS also issued a 15-year Incidental Withdrawal Permit that allows entities that hold permits under the Endangered Species Act to withdraw an approved amount of water from the water. aquifer, Storment said.

Permittees include the EAA and the cities of San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio via the San Antonio water system as well as Texas State University. That 15-year license is due to expire in 2028, he said.

The EAHCP, through its committees, began an extensive five-year process in August leading up to the renewal application due in 2028. They began with a series of listening and learning sessions to engage stakeholders and the public, Storment said.

Ideally, the new demand will be for a 30-year license, he said, but that hasn’t been determined yet and is affected by things that are still unknown.

“Climate change is an important factor,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability about what’s going to happen in those 30 years. We take this very seriously and we undergo intense modeling. Everything is connected. »•

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