Drought is taking toll on Texas aquifers

Posted Sunday, Jul. 24, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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The ferocious Texas drought is clobbering crops, thinning out cattle herds, decimating wildlife, and drying up streams and reservoirs, but it's also wreaking havoc deep underground, where the state's aquifers are dropping at a precipitous rate, experts say.

The dip in groundwater levels is forcing many rural homeowners who depend on residential wells to spend $500 to $1,000 to have their pumps lowered or, worse, $7,500 or more to have deeper wells drilled.

Lee Weaver knew he was facing a serious problem when he watched his lawn sprinkler dwindle to a meager squirt at his home south of Fort Worth.

A half-dozen miles to the west, in a small Aledo-area development, Pete and Stephanie Baldwin were confronting the same sobering reality -- the well at their 10-year-old home with a St. Augustine lawn and an inviting pool was barely pumping.

"It's scary. A house without water is a dead house," said Pete Baldwin, an environmental consultant who acknowledges his family's small role in a growing problem across Texas, where an estimated 1 million water wells tap rain-starved aquifers.

"This drought is making it clear: There are too many straws in a small cup. We've created our own problem," he said while a drilling crew lowered his well 14 feet to the bottom of the 181-foot shaft.

With less than 5 yards of wiggle room before their pump could start sucking air, the couple are considering adding a 5,000-gallon storage tank, which would cost about $1 per gallon.

"My new motto is, 'Man up, brown up,'" Baldwin said with a nod toward the parched lawn on his 2.3-acre lot. "A lawn has been a status symbol, and that's no longer sustainable."

For Weaver, a retiree from the oil and gas industry, the price is going to be even steeper. He's paying $25 a foot, or about $7,500, to have a new 300-foot-deep well drilled. He knows of three neighbors facing the same problem.

An alarming decline

After nearly a year of scant rainfall, 100 percent of Texas is withering under abnormally dry conditions, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, and 75 percent is in an exceptional drought -- the worst level.

As a result, the nine major and 21 minor aquifers that supply about 60 percent of the state's water supply are declining at alarming rates, groundwater officials say.

Jack Watts, a veteran water well driller in south Fort Worth, has been getting dozens of calls a week from panicked people whose wells are drying up.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen it. It's good for us, but it's a real problem for a lot of people," he said.

"Everyone who calls says they have an emergency. I tell them a lot of people are having an emergency," said Watts, whose father started Watts Drilling Co. in 1946. It's now a fourth-generation family business, with Watts' wife, two sons, their wives and a grandson working there.

And they're all scrambling to ease a two-week backlog for lowering pumps and at least a month wait for drilling new wells, Watts said. Many customers are adding storage tanks, he said.

"That can help them get by until the aquifers recharge -- if we ever get some rain," he said.

But with Texas suffering through its driest nine months in recorded history, its hottest June ever, a long string of triple-digit temperatures in July and no letup expected in August, the problem is only expected to worsen.

"A kind of triple evil" is in play, said Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University.

"There are cumulative effects because of the drought," he said. "Aquifers aren't recharging as quickly. Because of growth, there is more competition for a dwindling resource. And during a drought, they're pumping more water."

Most of the pressure on groundwater is coming along the Interstate 35 corridor, particularly around fast-growing cities such as Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio where development is gobbling up ranchland and sucking up groundwater, Kaiser said.

"You're now getting 10-, 20-acre ranchettes where you had 1,000-acre ranches," he said.

Weaver suspects that's part of the problem around his 24-acre property, where four new subdivisions have sprouted in recent years.

"Twenty years ago, we thought we were moving to the country. The city has come to us," he said.

Others say fracking for natural gas wells is also a drain. But Kaiser said all those new residential wells and the surge in natural gas wells in Texas are a drop in the bucket compared with agricultural use, which accounts for about 80 percent of all groundwater pumped annually.

"The Texas Water Development Board did a study a few years back and found the impact of all that natural gas fracking would have less than a 10 percent impact on aquifer levels," he said.

Watts says the impact of fracking has been noticeable. "They use a lot of water," he said.

"But so have subdivisions where they put two wells on every lot so they'll have enough for the landscaping," he said. "The aquifer levels are a lot lower than they were 40 years ago."

"It's people that have changed things. It comes down to you, me and our wants," Watts said.

Historic lows

Bob Patterson, president of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which covers Parker, Montague, Wise and Hood counties, said the drought has caused aquifer levels to dip 20 feet in many areas and 50 feet or so in places.

The drop has been even deeper in parts of the Blanco-Pedernales Groundwater Conservation District in Central Texas, General Manager Ron Fieseler said.

It's so bad that the district's namesake rivers, the Blanco and Pedernales, are no longer flowing, he said.

"I've got one well where we had a 30-foot drop in one week," he said.

The decline in aquifers is happening statewide, said Jim Conkwright, president of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts and general manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, based in Lubbock. "I think anyone that has a water well is seeing a decline this summer," he said.

Wells are at historic lows in the Lipan-Kickapoo Water Conservation District, which covers three rural counties around San Angelo, General Manager Allan Lange said.

"It's worse than the drought we had in the '50s. It's off the charts," Lange said. Stringent watering restrictions are in place at the Cow Creek Groundwater Conservation District in Kendall County, northwest of San Antonio, General Manager Micah Voulgaris said.

"When the cedar trees are dying, you know it's dry," he said. "We've only had 4.8 inches of rainfall this year. The average since 1893 is 16.7 inches."

A mandatory 40 percent reduction is in place for well water users. Cars can't be washed at home. Pools can't be filled using groundwater. Lawn watering is limited to one day a week and only by hand -- no sprinklers allowed, Voulgaris said.

"People are learning to adjust. Rainwater systems have caught on. But you need rain for that to work," he said. "It's pretty bad when people are praying for a hurricane."

The aquifer declines have had the biggest impact on wells 200 feet deep or less.

"People tend to drill to where everyone else is getting water. If the neighbor got it at 200, that's where they want to go," Kaiser said.

Watts said many of the problems he's seeing are in subdivisions where the "straws all went down to the same level."

Ultimately, going deep is the only protection, Kaiser said.

"The reality in Texas, if you want to be out of the city -- if want your own little patch of heaven -- in a drought you are most at risk if you can't afford the cost of putting in a really deep well," he said.

Groundwater managers say rain is their only hope.

"I've been praying for a 10-inch rain in about four hours -- it's going to take a lot of runoff to recharge our aquifer," Lange said.

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981

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