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Restrictions to Increase as Edwards Aquifer at Near-Historic Low

The Edwards Aquifer is the subject of new pumping restrictions that are being announced Wednesday. San Antonio's water utility, which relies significantly on the aquifer, says that the city can avoid further restrictions of its own if it follows the authority's guidelines.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
A view downstream from the headwaters of the San Marcos River. Water from the Edwards Aquifer flows from San Marcos Springs into the San Marcos River.

With San Antonio’s major water source at near-historic lows and no rain in the forecast, the Edwards Aquifer Authority is announcing Stage III pumping restrictions Wednesday for the second time ever. Unless the weather changes, the city may have to soon follow suit and restrict its residents to watering their lawns once every two weeks, which it has never done.

The Edwards Aquifer is at just under 637 feet above sea level as of Wednesday. (Normal conditions would put it at least a few feet above 640.) Over the last 10 days, that number has averaged about 639 feet. That triggered the harsher restrictions, which reduce the amount of water its permit-holders can withdraw by 35 percent. 

"There’s no rain forecast in the near future, which means the aquifer is going to continue to drop," said Terri Herbold, spokeswoman for the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “We’re not looking at a quick return to Stage II." The Authority had been in Stage II since June, reducing permit-holders' withdrawal by 30 percent. 

San Antonio’s water utility can avoid increased restrictions with its own customers, as long as it follows the withdrawal numbers.

“It’s up to us to do whatever we need to do to meet that 35 percent cutback,” said Anne Hayden, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio Water System, or SAWS.

The city has been in a Stage 2 drought management plan for more than a year, allowing residents to water their lawns once a week from 7 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 11 p.m, among other restrictions. (San Antonio uses Arabic numerals for its drought stages instead of Roman numerals, to distinguish them from the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s stages.)

SAWS has said repeatedly that for now, it does not plan to ask customers to reduce their water consumption further.

“We can avoid Stage 3 restrictions for now,” Greg Flores, the utility’s vice president of public affairs, said in a statement. “Our customers are saving water, and our stored supply is helping meet summer demand. With this supply, we have the ability to make it to cooler, wetter fall weather.”

But not everyone is convinced San Antonio won’t soon have to follow in the EAA’s footsteps.  

“To think that they won’t go to Stage 3 is, I think, very naive,” said Weir Labatt, a former director of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and former member of the Texas Water Development Board. "If we’re not in Stage 3 by mid-August, I’d just be shocked.”

The nearby town of New Braunfels recently announced Stage 3 for its residents, starting on Aug. 19. It’s the first time that city has had to do so since the restrictions were first defined.

Last year, the Edwards Aquifer Authority imposed Stage III restrictions for more than a month, beginning in mid-August. After much debate, San Antonio decided to remain in Stage 2. Rains saved it from having to take more drastic measures.

SAWS says that it has 82,500 acre-feet of water stored in its underground reservoir, about a third of last year’s total water demand. Some of that water is already replacing the Edwards Aquifer supply, helping adjust for the Stage III limitations.

“We’re in pretty good shape, even if the Edwards stayed in Stage III for much of the remainder of the year,” Hayden said.  

Right now SAWS pumps an average of 225 million gallons a day from the Edwards Aquifer, and another 40 million gallons from other sources such as the Trinity and Carizo aquifers. It does not expect to have to lower those numbers, Hayden said.

Officials expected to have to declare Stage III restrictions in June, but Memorial Day weekend rains gave them an extra few months.

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