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Edwards Aquifer Plan Receives High Honor at Turbulent Time

A plan meant to balance the needs of the Edwards Aquifer's 2 million water users with those of threatened species will receive a national award Thursday, but the state's severe drought could hinder the proposal's success.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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*Correction appended

A plan developed by officials across south-central Texas to balance the interests of millions of the state’s water users with a federal mandate to protect endangered species has received a high-profile award. But the plan may not succeed if the most severe drought in recent memory continues. 

The coveted Partners in Conservation Award is given personally by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to only a few recipients nationwide each year. But those who worked on the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan, which was approved in 2013 after several years of work, are accepting the honor at what may be the most turbulent time for the aquifer and the authority that regulates it since 1993. That's when a judge ordered the state to determine how to better manage pumping from the Edwards Aquifer or face federal intervention.

The plan "wasn’t designed to be put together during the middle of a drought,” said Todd Votteler, a member of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s executive team who helped develop the plan. “That’s just kind of an unfortunate luck of the draw. … If we’d had some lead time to get all the pieces in place, that would have been great. But the drought started before the plan was even finished.”

The plan’s chief goal is to ensure that the San Marcos and Comal Springs, both of which are fed by the Edwards Aquifer, flow enough to prevent the deaths of federally protected endangered species that live there. But should the drought continue through this summer, that effort may be futile.

“I am watching the [spring] levels very closely, and everyone is concerned about this summer and what could come,” said Nathan Pence, executive director for the plan's implementation. 

The struggle to protect a primary water source for 2 million Texans that also happens to be a home for federally protected endangered species dates back decades. In 1991, the Sierra Club alleged that endangered animals living in the San Marcos and Comal Springs were in grave danger from over-pumping of the Edwards Aquifer by the San Antonio region, and that no plan was in place to protect them.

After a two-year trial, a federal judge agreed. He threatened federal intervention unless Texas could solve the problem by better managing pumping of the Edwards Aquifer. That prompted lawmakers to establish the Edwards Aquifer Authority in 1993, though further legal wrangling delayed its full operation until 1996.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority then spent years trying to limit pumping to a mandated cap. In 2007, it received legislative approval to raise the cap slightly, so long as it developed a plan to protect itself from liability from another federal endangered species lawsuit. Five years later, in collaboration with many other regional stakeholders, the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Plan was released.

One aspect of the plan is compensation for farmers who elect not to irrigate their crops if drought conditions are too severe. Pence said that so far he has signed up enough farmers to save more than 25,000 acre-feet of water per year. But the compensation program only takes effect if a key well for the aquifer authority measures just 635 feet in the month of October. Last October, its level was 635.1 feet, just over the threshold.

“So now we don’t have that part of the plan in place for this year, which would be really nice to have, to pay some of the irrigators not to irrigate,” said Votteler, of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.

Another element of the plan that has proven a challenge is the Edwards Aquifer Authority's attempt to lease extra water and store it in an underground reservoir owned by the San Antonio Water System. So far, Pence said, the authority hasn't had much luck leasing the water, though he added that interest is growing. 

“I think it’s fair to say that there are concerns about that,” said Robert Gulley, former program director for the recovery plan. “But I think it’s also fair to say that is a measure that was designed to make sure that we had protection in the repeat of a drought of record. We’re not in that drought of record yet.”

Gulley and Pence noted that other water conservation measures in the plan have saved 8,500 acre-feet so far, and that they are well on the way to meeting the plan’s goal of saving 150,000 acre-feet over the next 15 years.

“The one thing we don’t control is the weather,” Gulley said, “so we’re starting out in the worst of times and I think it’s fair to say that despite that, we’re doing reasonably well.”

In addition to the environmental challenges facing the plan, the Edwards Aquifer Authority itself is under fire due to a spate of legal challenges. A Texas Supreme Court ruling in 2011 suggested that limiting a landowner’s ability to pump water could be a violation of constitutional property rights. A lower court ruled in August that the authority had violated a Hondo couple's property rights by limiting the amount of water they could pump. If that decision is upheld, the entire system of limiting pumping in the Edwards Aquifer could be in doubt.

Perhaps even more daunting is a challenge in federal district court by the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national civil rights activist group. LULAC has sued under the Voting Rights Act, claiming that the makeup of the authority’s board does not give enough representation to Bexar County, which is by far the aquifer’s biggest water user and has a large minority population.

The trial for that case begins in March. If LULAC prevails, the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s board could be declared invalid — and the Texas legislature could once again have to decide how the board members should be chosen, a process that took three years the first time around.

“LULAC’s definitely a problem,” said Greg Ellis, a water lawyer and former general manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. “If they manage to destroy the delicate political balance that was the underpinnings of the solution, the solution may go away.”

An earlier version of this story misidentified Nathan Pence as General Manager of the Edwards Aquifer Authority. He is the director of the implementation program for the EAA's recovery plan. 

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