Texas Drought Sparks Water Well Drilling Frenzy

Workers with Bee Cave Drilling install a jackhammer bit on the drilling rig while putting in a water well on a private lot in Spicewood, Texas on February 6, 2012.
Workers with Bee Cave Drilling install a jackhammer bit on the drilling rig while putting in a water well on a private lot in Spicewood, Texas on February 6, 2012.

In the Central Texas town of Spicewood, near the much-diminished Lake Travis, a Bee Cave Drilling crew used a 35-ton, 40-foot-tall drilling rig to create a hole 350-feet deep in the yard of a home.

After the hole was drilled, workers put a casing down it and sealed the area with cement, creating a water well that would allow the homeowners to collect groundwater and avoid relying on the public water system for irrigation.

As the most intense drought in state history drags on, plenty of Texans are waiting for months to have such wells drilled, fearful that their municipalities could impose stricter limits on water use. But this increased demand is causing concerns that groundwater in some places will start drying up, and regulators are working on rules to maintain certain groundwater levels.

Bee Cave Drilling, a Dripping Springs-based company, has a four-month waiting list, compared with a normal winter wait of two weeks, according to Jim Blair, its president.

“It was crazy this summer,” he said. “We had to bring on extra people just to answer the phone, and it has roared right on through winter.”

According to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, the number of licensed water well drillers and pump installers has increased by 1 percent, to 1,662 this January from 1,639 in January 2011. That slight uptick, however, seems to lag far behind the demand.

A number of Austinites, Blair said, are rushing to get a well in case Austin bans outdoor watering, a possibility that had been discussed for this spring, before the recent downpours slightly increased the water supplies.

“I have a lot of nervous customers who are begging me to get to their property” before that happens, Blair said.

The Texas Water Development Board estimates that up to 1.5 million water wells have been drilled in the state since 1900, although up to 500,000 of these may now be abandoned.

Hiring a driller these days is not cheap. A new residential well costs $12,000 to $30,000, Blair said, with the difference due to variables like how deep the well goes and the size of the pump. The well drilled in Spicewood took a day.

But lots of Texans want one, and the wait can be frustrating. G.W. Franzen, a Matagorda County rice farmer, plans to drill two test wells on his land to see if enough groundwater exists to replace some surface water, which he fears losing access to because of emergency measures by the Lower Colorado River Authority. But he cannot get a driller until May or June.

“That’s not soon enough for the 2012 crop,” he said.

Larry Schwope, a co-owner of H.W. Schwope & Sons, a drilling company in the Hill Country town of Boerne, said his company had seen a crush of business because of the drought. And barring some “real good rains” soon, demand could pick up further this summer, he said.

A number of regulators around the state, eager to preserve groundwater supplies, have been recently tightening restrictions on how much individuals can withdraw. Such changes, along with the drought, have made the groundwater supply business somewhat busier, according to Kevin Spencer, president of R.W. Harden & Associates, an Austin-based hydrology firm. His firm procures companies to drill large wells that serve cities like Groesbeck, and he said he had not had trouble finding drillers for municipal wells despite the drought and the backlog for smaller drillers.

Blair fears that in the future, the Legislature could alter groundwater rules in parts of Travis County to bar people who are on city water from drilling a well.

Meanwhile, despite the booming demand for water wells, some drillers are drifting toward a more lucrative business — oil and gas. Blair, of Bee Cave Drilling, said that several major water well companies in Central and North Texas had switched to drilling for fossil fuels, lured by the prospect of making twice as much money.

Blair, however, is sticking to water, which is less boom-and-bust-prone than oil and gas.

“I like water because it’s very steady,” Blair said. “People always need water.”

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