With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Samantha Fox is the senior database developer for Ponderosa Advisors, where she organizes water rights data for Water Sage, an interactive map that integrates information about water rights and land ownership.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What is your job and how did you get there?
Samantha Fox: My job as a database developer is to put together the data that we display in our online mapping application, Water Sage.
I have been in the database business for 10 years now. I got here because I had worked for our founder before. He had an energy company, and that’s what we did there was collect a bunch of data, analyze it, understand it and put it together so people can visualize energy, specifically natural gas pipeline flows in North America.
When he sold that company, he was looking at ranch properties in Montana, and he gave our team the mission, “Build me something that I can sit down from the comfort of my home in the morning and in a couple of hours I can look up a ranch and know what I need to know about its water and how it’s relative to the properties around it.” … We did that and it worked so well that we decided we wanted to do that for the entire West.
Trib+Water: Why is groundwater so important?
Fox: Texans have always been dependent on groundwater. When surface water is scarce, as it often is in drought periods, people tend to pump more groundwater. Groundwater is being depleted around the state, as it is across many places in the West. We’re just drawing it out much faster than nature is putting it back in.
You see evidence of the problem and how Texans have become focused on managing their resources better. With the emergence of groundwater conservation districts, you see a lot of concern and a lot of local management of groundwater, which indicates how much people are concerned about the future of it.
Trib+Water: What are the effects of depleting groundwater?
Fox: I think it starts with use, which is fine, but then when a drought hits, you have more people relying on it, drilling more wells, drilling deeper wells and, as you drill deeper, you have more of an impact on the wells around you. It’s just a snowballing problem.
Trib+Water: What is the worst effect that can happen when depleting groundwater?
Fox: It’s just not going to be there for people to draw from anymore. You’ve already seen wells go dry in some areas. I think if you deplete the freshwater, you’re going to eventually reach just the brackish water, which is the salt water that’s really deep.
You’re starting to see brackish water development where we can clean brackish water to drinking water standards, but that costs a lot of money. Texans will be in a real hard spot if they don't have groundwater to pump. …
People are using the rivers to the max, and groundwater is there to use, but if you pump it then you have no water to use … the land actually sinks because there’s not groundwater underneath it. It’s serious.
Trib+Water: What should Texas do to prevent this?
Fox: The groundwater conservation districts are a great strategy for that. What they do is manage groundwater at a local level. Texas is so large and has so much variation. Each aquifer is different. Each area’s concerns or how they use groundwater are different.
So that is what people are doing. I think that’s a really positive trend. People are getting educated and becoming really involved in the management of their shared resource.
Trib+Water: What’s the cause behind the increase of groundwater use?
Fox: Population growth, for sure. Texas has five of the top 10 fastest growing cities in the country. With population growth, you get a lot more wells being drilled, even for domestic use. … Nearly every use of groundwater is growing with the growth of Texas.
Trib+Water: What are some problems that a more rural area of Texas might face with groundwater?
Fox: In urban areas, when you have surface water use being restricted, people can drill a well to water their lawn because they don’t have agriculture to speak of. So you can infer that’s what they're doing with it. In rural areas, they may be using it for domestic use to run the household, showering and bathing; things like that.
You definitely have in rural areas more irrigation. You have deepening of wells because of the competition for the resource.
Of course, you have oil and gas development as a part of the use. You even have in rural areas, sometimes, municipalities will come in and drill wells to transport water back to the urban areas. So there’s a lot of uses that are competing.
Trib+Water: Where does Water Sage play into this? If I’m a homeowner, how can I use Water Sage?
Fox: We set it up so that anyone would be able to use it really quickly. We focus on making a lot of information available in a visual way and in a really intuitive way.
There’s a lot of publicly available data in other places, but what we do is bring it together so you can understand the situation much more quickly than you would be able to do with raw data. We put together things like aquifer outlines, we have stream gauge data, we have land parcel data, as well as water rights data so you can that see what’s going on in an area really quickly. …
Trib+Water: What role does the private industry play with groundwater?
Fox: I think all sectors have a responsibility to be good stewards and conserve where they can … In fracking operations they’re ... recycling and processing wastewater to use again.