When it rains, Texans forget drought and worsening water scarcity
After the pandemic, soaring population growth, development will again challenge planning and water supply.
By Keith Schneider Circle of Blue
Keith Schneider is senior editor and chief correspondent at Circle of Blue. He has reported on the contest for energy, food, and water from six continents. Circle of Blue is the award-winning, independent news organization that reports on the intersections of water, food, and energy across the U.S. and globally.
WIMBERLEY, Texas – Among the famed springs that distinguish the Texas Hill Country as a region of crystal-clear water and iconic swimming holes, Jacob’s Well stands out. The spring’s water source is rain that falls on the thin soils of Hays County and filters through porous limestone before filling a network of deep, ancient caves.
The water rises back to the surface from a hole, about 12 feet across, in the bottom of Cypress Creek. The round opening is so blue, so shimmering, that viewed from the top of a nearby limestone cliff it looks like an eye. Unblinking as it emerges from the darkness, the water forms an intent gaze that appears capable of seeing the opposing moods of the Hill Country: the calming influence of ample water supply in wet seasons, and surging alarm during drought.
When it’s wet in Hays and the 16 other counties that form the Hill Country, Jacob’s Well pours about 900 gallons a minute into Cypress Creek, more than enough to fill the Blue Pool downstream that is a summertime recreational asset in this town of 3,000 residents. In wet years, ample rainfall means that the various circumstances of economic development — population growth, land use changes and water supply — are like soft breezes, licks of wind that are not terribly distracting.
“Dry years reveal a momentous confrontation, as residents encounter the menacing consequence of runaway growth.”
But in dry years, water typically heads that list of priorities, in capital letters. Months of rainless weather produce a fury of cultural anxiety about water scarcity. Those anxious breezes gather force into much stronger gales of public discord and blame. Dry years reveal a momentous confrontation, as residents encounter the menacing consequence of runaway growth. Stated most succinctly, the Hill Country could run out of water unless it substantially alters its pattern of booming population growth, industrial development and housing construction now occurring in the region — and for that matter, across much of the rest of the state.
“Texas does not understand shortages,” said Dr. Larry McKinney, former director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, a unit of Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. “It’s the Texas mentality. Texas is so big we’ve had a hard time coming to grips [with the idea] that resources are finite. We really never had to deal with that. Frankly, we’re reaching that point.
“The Hill Country is the prime example,” McKinney said. “Growth there has just gone crazy. People don’t grasp that there are limits and we are approaching those limits. And the time to make change is now, before the costs are just too huge to consider.”
State water planning pummeled by droughts
In many ways, the story of Texas over the last century is the state’s devout allegiance to the principle that mankind has dominion over nature. The pandemic shut down that idea in 2020.
Fast-rising Covid-19 case numbers and deaths made public health and safety the primary concern. Hays County had counted over 5,700 confirmed infections and 60 deaths as of mid-September.
The climate disruptions occurring in Texas, along with booming population and economic growth, is also writing a story of vulnerability — to nature’s bullying and government’s uncertain capacity to adjust.
This article is the first of a five-part series on the mismatch between runaway development and tightening constraints on the supply and quality of fresh water in Texas. Along with this report, the Water, Texas project provides close examinations of other crucial aspects of the state’s resource challenges: energy development risks to the Big Bend region, water innovations in three major Texas cities, how the new border wall intrudes on the ever-present civic conversation about water supply and growth in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and the influence of water and drought on the Texas economy. Water, Texas is funded by the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation. Its intent is to inform citizens and policymakers, and help influence investments and new practices to assure a drying Texas has adequate supplies of clean fresh water.
It’s not that Texas has ignored the desperation that accompanies drought. A terrible long drought in the early 1950s spurred the Legislature to establish the Texas Water Development Board to relieve the stress of deep droughts. The agency serves as instigator, funder, researcher, collaborator, idea center and data gatherer for all the cities and towns, universities, groundwater conservation districts, permitting agencies and conservation groups involved in securing sufficient water. Its State Water Plan, issued every five years, is regarded as the chief playbook for determining what needs to be done over the next 50 years. It offers direction on how much must be spent in Texas to safeguard freshwater reserves; it also encourages conservation and new practices that will make it easier to live through droughts.
Hydrologists crunch numbers about water demand and use. Engineers dream up expensive fixes for supplying reservoirs and extensive pipelines for tapping distant reserves. And still, the obstacles to getting it right — for the state’s response to the next drought to be adequate to cope with the peril — are high.
Texas has more years with adequate rain than dry ones. In those wetter years, another state value takes precedence: economic growth. And at the core of the Texas economy are three thirsty economic sectors: agriculture, fossil fuel production and processing, and real estate development.
That’s why the episodic absence of rain over long periods blows big holes in the success of the state’s water planning. In 2011, the driest year ever recorded in Texas, water scarcity caused a near panic in the Hill Country and across the state. Wells dried up. Reservoirs emptied. There wasn’t enough river water to cool power plants. Bays and estuaries, normally refreshed by the great Texas rivers that bring fresh water to coastal waters, grew saltier, causing severe damage to fisheries.
Water, of course, is the lifeblood of all human activity. But the mismatch between population and industrial growth and securing the state water supply is so disproportionate in wet years that the next deep drought in a much bigger, more populous, and thirstier Texas is likely to be far more dangerous.
“There just won’t be enough water for all,” said Margo Denke, an endocrinologist and founder of Friends of Hondo Canyon, a citizen group battling a developer to prevent damage to a Hill Country stream. “There won’t be mechanisms in place to distribute and use wisely the water that is available.”
Rising demand confronts lower supplies
There are a couple of ways to examine the coming hardship. The first is in numbers. The Water Development Board and every other responsible research group has found two signal trend lines are colliding: demand and supply. By 2070, largely due to Texas’s strong economy and attractive big cities, the population will grow to 51 million — 22 million more people than today. The state’s demand for water, the Water Development Board projects, will climb to 21.6 million acre-feet, up from 18.4 million. (One acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons.)
At the same time, a severe drought will bring increasing constraint. State authorities project that in a drought comparable to the most severe on record, water available in aquifers, as well as supplies from rivers and other surface water sources, will fall over the next 50 years from 15.2 million acre-feet to 13.6 million acre-feet. During the driest periods, more people will have less water. Considerably less water.
Here’s how that confrontation is playing out in the Hill Country, the epicenter of population growth and uncertain water supply in Texas.
Two generations ago, about 40,000 people made their homes in Hays County, an epic, rural, rolling masterpiece of space and sky close to Austin and San Antonio. Authorities in Hays counted 14,000 homes supplied with water from the Trinity Aquifer, a giant freshwater reserve that lay below. In wet years and in dry ones, water was readily available. The clear waters of Jacob’s Well bubbled up so steadily that diving from that limestone cliff into the deep blue eye was a rite of passage for Hill Country teens.
Forty years later, Hays County has grown to 222,000 residents and 75,000 housing units. The Trinity Aquifer is tapped out. Since 2003, a pipeline from Lake Travis, a reservoir near Austin, has provided developers sufficient water to continue building big subdivisions.
But a study by the Hill Country Alliance and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos found that the piped water encouraged more water well drilling into the aquifer. In one area, they found that pumping jumped from just over 3 million gallons annually to 90 million gallons.
“On Jacob’s Well, the effect of pumping a depleted aquifer was immediately apparent. Starting in 2000, there were days it stopped flowing.”
On Jacob’s Well, the effect of pumping a depleted aquifer was immediately apparent. Starting in 2000, there were days it stopped flowing.
David Baker, an artist and water advocate, is principal caretaker of Jacob’s Well. Born 61 years ago in Lawrence, Kansas, and raised in Kansas City, Baker first laid eyes on Jacob’s Well in 1988 when he rented a house on the well owner’s 25-acre ranch. He bought the spread in 1990. Over the next 30 years, he became an expert in Hill Country hydrology, founded and directed the non-profit Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, convinced the county to establish a park around Jacob’s Well, and assembled 300 acres of undeveloped land as a recharge conservation zone to ensure the spring’s steady flow.
It’s painstaking work. Work, says Baker, that needs to be replicated across the Hill Country.
“We’re building all this stuff — subdivisions, shopping centers — on top. We’re trashing the surface. We’re draining the aquifer,” Baker said. “We don’t have sufficient water supply to keep doing that.”
This year, ample rainfall in the winter produced dividends for Baker and the groups of people from inside and outside Texas who visit Jacob’s Well every day. The spring generated a steady flow into Cypress Creek, and from there into the Blanco River, which feeds the San Marcos River, which feeds the Guadalupe River, which provides much of the freshwater that reaches the San Antonio Bay estuary along the Gulf of Mexico.
Baker ticked off the watery track from the spring to the Gulf. “What happens here also affects whatever happens downstream,” he said. “Most people around here don’t connect the dots. They just don’t see the effects.”
That may be true in Hays County. It’s not true downstream in the state’s Gulf Coast estuaries. Because less water drains from the Hill Country, some Gulf Coast estuaries — nursing grounds for sport fisheries, shrimp and oysters, and grassy resting and breeding grounds for migratory birds and waterfowl — are shrinking. Texas wildlife and fisheries managers have been aware of this condition of water scarcity since the state’s population began increasing by 250,000 annually in the 1980s.
That rate of growth is almost double now. One of the epicenters is the Hill Country, where Austin and San Antonio are among the fastest-growing cities in the nation. The population of Hill Country counties — 1.6 million in 1980 — now exceeds 4 million. And it got there a full decade earlier than demographers projected.
Dr. Larry McKinney, former director of the Harte Research Institute, has watched the upstream growth up close. He owns a home in Hays County that was surrounded by vistas and fields and is now hemmed in by 5,000-home subdivisions to the east and west. Dr. McKinney is also among the foremost experts in the life cycles of Gulf Coast estuaries, especially Corpus Christi Bay. Before assuming leadership of the Harte Institute 14 years ago, he spent a good chunk of his career at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, where he led work to determine how much fresh water was needed to keep the state’s important bays and estuaries healthy.
By 1994 his team had the numbers. Corpus Christi Bay, for instance, required 1.15 million acre-feet of fresh water to sustain healthy shorelines, shrimp and oyster nurseries, and an active sport fishery. Drainage from the western Hill Country into the Nueces River provided most of that water which, in the parlance of water regulators and hydrologists, is called “environmental flow.”
Keeping the bay healthy meant requiring upstream water users to conserve enough water to secure environmental flows to the Gulf. It required both hydrology and politics to achieve that goal. Upstream users were not inclined to use less water unless it was required — and Texans are notorious for disdaining rules and strictures.
The 57-year-old Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, though, is an agency with sufficient political muscle. The department oversees 10 major bays and estuaries, wildlife habitat and refuges, parks, sport fishing, commercial shrimping, and oyster harvesting along the state’s 367-mile Gulf Coast. Taken together, the agency’s oversight is closely tied to at least $5 billion in annual tourist and recreational income. The condition of the coast and the lifestyle it encourages accounts for billions of dollars more in residential and business development.
The Texas Legislature took note of that economic fact when, prompted by drought and by legal skirmishes over water rights for environmental flows, it enacted statutes in 1997 and later in 2007. The statutes were meant to ensure that enough water arrived on the coast in periods of drought. The laws required that as upstream developers gained new water use permits, they didn’t consume every gallon. Theoretically, adequate water would flow to keep downstream natural areas, wetlands, wildlife refuges, and estuaries ecologically productive.
“Even backed by the force of law, though, that directive has not succeeded in keeping enough water flowing to Corpus Christi and its bay, particularly in dry years.”
Even backed by the force of law, though, that directive has not succeeded in keeping enough water flowing to Corpus Christi and its bay, particularly in dry years. The theory behind the statutes was overwhelmed by the reality of water consumption in the Hill Country and across Texas. So much water had already been spoken for by permit and historic uses that not nearly enough was left in rivers and streams for environmental flows.
In the 2011 drought, the bay suffered as salt water from the Gulf intruded deep into its blue waters. Requirements for environmental flow were ignored. Zones of brackish water needed for sea life to breed and feed became too salty for them to survive.
“I came to the realization that this state is never going to get water for the environment,” said McKinney. “Instead, what we have done in the state of Texas is basically downsizing our estuaries. We’re slowly cutting their scope and size.”
The Harte Research Institute and its colleagues in the city’s sport fishing community were not the only groups that took notice of how water scarcity made the bay sick. Administrators at Corpus Christi City Hall and the port also grew alarmed, but for a different reason.
The 2011 drought coincided with an oil and gas production boom in the Permian Basin. So much fossil energy was starting to flow from West Texas and southeast New Mexico that Corpus Christi joined Houston,Beaumont and other Texas coastal cities in pressing the White House and Congress to reverse a 1975 ban on domestic crude oil exports.
The Obama White House lifted the ban in 2015. Corpus Christi almost immediately became the locus of $54 billion in infrastructure investments – new and expanded refineries, tank farms, pipeline depots, natural gas processing plants, ethylene producers, export terminals and a mammoth dredging project to widen and deepen the shipping channel.
Several installations have been completed. More are under construction. Even more are planned for completion after the pandemic subsides. Sections of shoreline of the Corpus Christi port are gigantic construction zones, a geography of towering cranes, swinging steel, squadrons of trucks and earth-moving equipment and workers in lime-colored safety vests. Corpus Christi emerged in January as the largest oil and natural gas export terminal in the United States, at times accounting for more than half of U.S. crude oil exports.
In April, though, as the pandemic swept the world and the transportation sector declined, exports began to retreat. At the start of the year, Corpus Christi authorities thought their port had the potential to become as important to the global oil and gas trade as the Suez Canal or the Strait of Hormuz. The virus eliminated the optimism underlying that projection.
Still, regardless of the effect of the virus on the energy trade, other installations under consideration and others being built near the port – a new $1.9 billion steel factory, a $16 billion liquid natural gas processing plant and a $10 billion chemical plant — require water. Much more water than the 105,000 acre-feet that drains from Hill Country rivers into the Nueces, Guadalupe, and San Antonio rivers that the port, other industries and businesses, and 500,000 metropolitan area residents now use each year.
Pumping from coastal aquifers is not considered an option because it can be dangerous. Up the coast, a warning emerged in Galveston Bay, where low-lying neighborhoods were inundated due to the practice of drawing water from the coastal aquifer, causing land to sink.
Given worsening water scarcity upstream, port and city administrators are anxious to diversify. Knowing that whatever decision they make will be expensive, Corpus Christi is considering an outside-the-box idea, looking to tap the bay or the Gulf and build two desalination plants to provide 94,000 acre-feet of water to industry.
In December 2019, the City Council approved $450,000 for preparing and submitting state permit applications. The proposal has drawn some opposition from residents concerned about the multi-billion dollar cost of construction, the multi-million dollar annual cost of electricity and operation and the unsolved dilemma of how to safely dispose of the millions of gallons of waste brine produced by big desalination plants. In April, the city applied for a $222 million loan to build the first plant from the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, a low-interest source of money administered by the State Water Development Board.
Mayor Joe McComb, a Republican who took office in 2017, supports using seawater as a source of fresh water. “If we’re going to continue to grow and create jobs and expand Corpus Christi, we have to have a dependable, uninterruptable water supply,” he told reporters.
Hill Country water conflicts
Upstream in the Hill Country, that same central idea of the sanctity of economic expansion is also paramount, and produces all manner of conflict and turmoil about water.
For instance, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is considering permit applications from two Hill Country cities and six developers to build treatment plants for discharging 1.6 million gallons of wastewater every day into surface streams. Such discharges contain nitrogen, phosphorous and other chemicals that encourage algae blooms, which have become much more common in Hill Country rivers famous for crystal-clear waters and clean limestone bottoms.
“The confrontations between wastewater plant developers and downstream residents are typically fierce.”
The confrontations between wastewater plant developers and downstream residents are typically fierce. In Bandera County, a few hours west of Jacob’s Well, the developer of a Christian summer camp has applied to the TCEQ for a permit to build a plant to treat 49,000 gallons of wastewater daily and discharge it into Commissioners Creek. The creek is the headwaters of Hondo Creek, a tributary of the Nueces River which feeds into Corpus Christi.
“We’re very conscious of the land, of the surrounding land, of the need for clean water, for recreational water,” the developer, Sam Torn, told reporters two years ago. Our kids will use that water for recreation, so we have to figure out the most ecologically sound and economically feasible way to dispose of our wastewater.”
Dr. Denke, the activist with Friends of Hondo Canyon, opposes the permit. “Our little community funded an independent analysis of creek water,” she said. “There was undetectable phosphorus, and very low or absent nitrogen levels in this pristine creek. So the problem with wastewater discharge into the creek is that, in no uncertain terms, it will degrade the quality of water in the creek. Wastewater cannot be treated to the purity and clarity of the spring-fed water it will be replacing. It will produce green, slimy, polluted rivers that no one will want to swim in or drink.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has fought its own battles with developers in a neighboring river basin. The agency owns and manages the 2,294-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area. A subdivision developer proposed three years ago to pour 500,000 gallons of treated wastewater daily into the creek, and was seeking a permit from the TCEQ. Carter Smith, the Wildlife Department director, objected. In a letter in September 2018, he told the environment department the discharge could change the “nature of the creek, which in turn could affect aquatic life and the broader ecosystem of the watershed,” and could “adversely affect” endangered species like the golden-cheeked warbler.
The state environment agency thumbed its nose at Smith and approved a draft permit. But that was before Texas citizens registered their displeasure with discharges to the Honey Creek State Natural Area and the TCEQ changed regulations for land application of wastewater. The developer withdrew its permit application in December and sought state approval for a different strategy – applying the treated wastewater to irrigate public spaces in the development. The agency is reviewing the application.
Another active center of opposition over water quality concerns a $2 billion natural gas pipeline that Kinder Morgan wants to build from the Permian Basin, across the Hill Country, to a terminal near Houston. Pipeline construction in Texas is essentially unregulated. The route of the 430-mile Permian Highway Pipeline crosses directly over the Hill Country’s sensitive limestone aquifers. David Baker’s Wimberley Valley Watershed Association joined Austin, several more cities, and a group of nonprofits in filing court motions that asserted two primary objections.
First, they argued, if the pipeline leaks, it will pollute drinking water. Second, its route violates the federal Endangered Species Act because construction and operation will damage habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered songbird. In February, a federal district judge slapped that argument aside and ruled Kinder Morgan could proceed.
But the water pollution case is active and expanding. On March 28, Kinder Morgan spilled 36,000 gallons of drilling fluid that drained into drinking water in Blanco County. The company did not notify county authorities or nearby homeowners, who found out when water that poured from faucets was brown, cloudy and unusable for any purpose. Residents turned bottled water and tanks to store trucked-in water.
The Texas Railroad Commission issued a notice of violation and commissioners in neighboring Hays County revoked Kinder Morgan’s permits to cut through and bore under three county roads to build the project. “Groundwater is what western Hays County lives off of, and many of our residents out there rely on their groundwater for their daily lives,” said Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell. “We don’t want to do anything or allow anyone to do anything to jeopardize that.”
Kinder Morgan announced it would reroute the pipeline to avoid the Blanco River, and executives insisted the project, which crosses 16 counties, would be finished. At the start of July, the pipeline was 65 percent complete, according to the company.
The path to opening the pipeline, though, is strewn with more impediments. In May, the Railroad Commission began investigating complaints of significant soil erosion along the pipeline right of way. In June, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association filed suit in federal court asserting the spill was a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
New gas and oil pipelines are under pressure across the United States. Two gas pipelines were cancelled in Kentucky at the end of the last decade. In July, owners of a major gas pipeline under construction in the East cancelled the project because of public resistance, rising costs, and diminishing demand. The apparent end of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, after $3.6 billion had already been spent, was a seminal illustration of the profound disruption in the natural gas market from surplus supply and changing demand for liquid natural gas exports, domestic electrical generation, and plastics manufacturing.
Concerned for the quality of the Hill Country’s water, Baker is actively working to make the Permian Highway Pipeline the next major gas transmission project to be cancelled.
“When Kinder Morgan announced the Permian Highway back in 2018, I said it was the worst thing to ever happen to the Texas Hill Country and that even the construction would cause harm to our fragile karst aquifers,” he said. “The March 28th event and the threat to sole-source drinking water is beyond what I feared most. The residents and landowners in the path of this pipeline are not going to stand down.”
Texas water supply challenge is not unique
Uncertainty and activism are two measures of the challenge that fast-growing communities face when they weigh new development against environmental constraints. Water struggles occurring across the Hill Country and much of the rest of Texas are essentially the same as those unfolding in places in America where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress — California, the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain West. For that matter, pursuit of economic growth and the reality of diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends rapidly moving in opposing directions almost everywhere on the planet, most notably in China and India.
Responses are as varied as the regions. It took a four-year drought that ended in 2017 for California to decide to regulate groundwater, a primary source for agriculture and cities.
In 2011, China discovered that its program of energy development, grain production and construction of new cities was using so much water that by 2020 it would be 16 to 20 million acre-feet in deficit, a shortage so dire it could wreck China’s booming economy.
A command-and-control society, China aggressively set out to shrink the deficit by quickly acting on three big initiatives. It moved much of its grain production from the dry Yellow River Basin to the wet northeast provinces. It closed water-thirsty coal mines, coal-washing stations and water-cooled coal-fired power stations. And it built the largest water-conserving solar and wind electrical generating industry on Earth.
In India, groundwater levels are steadily declining in the northwest states that produce much of the country’s rice, wheat and sugarcane. But the state and national governments encourage the trend. In a nation that has known pervasive hunger, food production is a paramount cultural objective. Keeping the 700 million Indians who are involved in agriculture happy is another prime objective. That’s why farmers pay nothing for water. They can use what they like. And they pay nothing for electricity to run ever-more powerful pumps needed to pull water to the surface that lies ever-deeper below ground.
“The significant question Texas hasn’t answered is where it will find enough water by 2070”
Texas is Texas. Texas is Big. Rich. Growing. Impulsive. Impressive.
The significant question Texas hasn’t answered is where it will find enough water by 2070 — 8.5 million acre-feet, according to the Texas Water Development Board, or about half the Chinese water deficit — to keep over 50 million people safe, satisfied and thriving during deepening droughts.
There are two ways to look at the challenge. The most optimistic view is so Texas. The Water Development Board, with its process of reviewing and revising the State Water Plan every five years, lays out steps meant to give Texans guidance and time to figure it out. The more realistic and accurate assessment is that, as Texas pursues its steep growth vector, the hardships of serious droughts, like the one that unfolded in 2011, will grow worse.