Index to all pages:

Issues Surrounding the Edwards Aquifer

A Brief Retrospective and a Summary

I am always surprised at how little and how slowly this page has to be changed. When I started this website in 1995, the primary issue that had to be resolved was how much users could pump, and the Edwards Aquifer Authority had been handed the job of allocating water rights. This question was not fully resolved until 2007, when the Edwards pumping cap was revised upwards to 572,000 acre-feet. Even so, there is still uncertainty regarding minimum necessary springflows and the pumping levels that would ensure them.

As the issue of pumping volume moved slowly toward resolution, a focus on Edwards water quality has emerged. It seems likely that ensuring water quality will take much longer to address than pumping did. After Senate Bill 1477 was passed in 1993, it seemed clear that after addressing pumping, the Edwards Aquifer Authority would eventually take on the role of developing regulations to protect Edwards water quality. But today, the issue is largely unresolved. There is disagreement whether this function should be the responsibility of the TCEQ or the EAA. In a State where private property rights are sacrosanct, regulators and lawmakers who would protect our natural resources find their hands tied at every turn. And the recent proliferation of groundwater conservation districts on the Edwards catchment area is bound to complicate matters by adding layers of competing jurisdiction. So the issue of regulating development and land use to protect Edwards water quality promises to be a source of controversy for decades.

In addition to an emerging focus on water quality, another of the main shifts in thinking about the Edwards has been toward viewing it as a living system instead of simply cold, wet limestone. For decades, aquifer science has failed to incorporate the living component, especially microbiology. This has led to misperceptions and a lack of appreciation for the value of the environmental services the Aquifer is providing. For example, officials and journalists often incorrectly state the Edwards does not filter water; in reality, the Edwards is a massive wastewater treatment plant that filters and purifies recharge water to a quality that is drinkable without further treatment. This occurs through physical and biological processes that are similar to those used in a conventional man-made plant, where the heart of the treatment system is a rich microbial community of organisms that transform and stabilize waste materials. Purification processes are occurring in the Edwards, but they have not been described or studied and we know very little about them. In the past, we viewed the Aquifer as simply a mechanistic flow system, and we looked to hydrogeologists for answers. In the future, we will view the Aquifer as a hard-working but fragile ecosystem, and we will tend to look more to biologists and chemists and water treatment experts for answers.

The Issues

In general, the framework in which we address issues surrounding the Edwards Aquifer involves the facts that:

- all the issues are complex and emotional;

- the timelines required to solve the problems are very long;

- the investments required are huge;

- the future is uncertain.

Most of the time, decision makers who face an uncertain future tend to make the timeline as short as possible and the investment as small as possible. In other words, they look for a quick, cheap fix. But water issues are not solved using this approach - they require long term commitments and very large investments. Moreover, it seems unlikely that we can use a traditional structural approach to build ourselves steel-and-concrete solutions like surface water reservoirs and recharge projects. We will have to THINK ourselves out of this one.

In general, water management issues for the Edwards Aquifer can be broadly classified as technical, legal, economic, and institutional. However, few concerns fit neatly into one category. For example, reuse of water at first seems like a technical issue, but on closer inspection it is clear this is mainly an institutional and cultural issue revolving around overcoming negative attitudes toward using recycled water.

Technical Issues

Since the Edwards has been one of the most studied aquifers in the world, most of the technical issues have already been tackled. Projects such as baseline predictions, quantification of Edwards resources, and mapping of the various zones have mostly already been performed and refined. But some things are still unclear, even after considerable study, and some of the unanswered questions are very basic.

  • How many recharge features exist and where are they? Many are still unidentified, and access to private property is often difficult.
  • How does the "bad water line" move in response to drought and pumping? Some experts maintain that once the bad water line moves, it will not return to its original position. Others disagree. The bottom line is we don't know what will happen if the Aquifer is drawn down below its historic low.
  • Where are the hydrogeologic boundaries and how do they interact? In 2006 new research by Ron Green and others suggested there is a large area under Kinney county that deserves to be designated as a separate pool. Previously, it was thought to be part of the Uvalde pool. In the east, it has always been clear that San Marcos Springs does not react much to pumping in the San Antonio section, and many believe it deserves to be designated as a separate pool as well.
  • How does the "Knippa Gap" affect flowpaths and well levels? We know the Gap is a natural barrier that affects the direction and volume of water flowing from the west into the San Antonio section of Aquifer, but not enough is known about how it works.
  • How much water could be brought from the western Edwards pools to San Antonio without adversely affecting well levels and economies of San Antonio's neighbors?
  • Will tracer analysis give us more detailed information on flowpaths and velocities? It seems likely, but research has been stalled by a lack of funds.
  • What were "natural" flows to the bays and estuaries like and what are the in-stream flow needs today?
  • What are the hydrogeologic connections to other aquifers like the Trinity? How much water is exchanged or recharged between them, and where does it occur?
  • How do the natural treatment processes work that transform muddy brown recharge water into potable well water and sparkling springflows? Very little is known about the physical and biological processes occurring in the Edwards that result in potable water.
  • Will a structural approach involving building more surface water reservoirs and recharge dams help address water quantity shortages? If so, where will the money come from? How do the economics of reuse and conservation compare with the structural approach?
  • Will a cap on pumping to protect springflows and endangered species actually work? Many experts maintain the springs will periodically go dry even if no one pumps a single drop.
  • Are the pumping limits and springflow requirements that have been established scientifically defensible? In the 1990s the Fish and Wildlife Service was charged with determining what springflow levels would result in "take" or "jeopardy" of endangered species, but subsequent research has suggested that flow rates much lower than previously thought would still be protective of endangered species habitats. We're still not really sure what flow rates are necessary, or how much pumping the Aquifer could actually sustain.
Legal Issues

To really get a grasp on the complicated legal issues involved, you need to check out the legislative history in the Laws and Regs section!   Some of the major legal issues for the aquifer are:

  • How can we finally institute conjunctive management of surface waters and groundwaters? Today, the EAA regulates groundwater in the Edwards region, while the TCEQ regulates surface water. It's all the same water. Since surface water and groundwater are interconnected and inseparable, isn't conjunctive management the only logical approach?
  • To what extent can we limit development or regulate land use in order to protect Edwards water quality? Will compensation be required, and who will pay?
  • What agency has the legal authority and responsibility to develop water quality regulations? How do we deal with competing jurisdictions and agency boundaries that are set up along political, not hydrogeologic lines?
  • Where can we get lawmakers with the gumption and foresight to tackle these issues without succumbing to pressure from powerful special interests?
  • How can we mitigate the political costs of effective action? How can we convince people their lawmakers are doing what is best for everyone in the long run?
Economic Issues

Any technical, legal, or institutional changes we make will have profound economic impacts. Some of the economic questions and issues are:

  • What is the value of value of water? Some say it is priceless, yet it has traditionally been so cheap that people always felt free to use whenever they wanted at any time. What price should be put on water?
  • Who should pay for new or extra water brought into the region? Should it be the new users or everyone who benefits?
  • What is the value of instream uses such as recreation and flows that exist simply to sustain aquatic ecosystems?
  • What is the economic value of environmental services the Edwards is providing for free? How much are we willing to pay to protect the ability of the Edwards to provide treatment?
  • Do we want an unrestricted water market where rights are bought and sold? If so, what kind of market will be efficient, fair, and effective? Currently, half of a person's water rights must remain with the land in perpetuity, and the other half can be sold. But what if the land use changes from agriculture to something like upscale retail, where the water rights are no longer needed or used? Should water rights holders then be permitted to sell those rights?
  • When we limit pumping to protect springflows, who pays and who benefits? Doesn't this benefit certain people at the expense of others?
  • If we limit development or regulate land use in recharge or catchment areas to protect water quality, will it be necessary to compensate landowners for lowered land values? Do we have to pay people not to pollute common resources? If so, who will pay, and how much?
  • What costs have we already incurred or encouraged because of lawmaker's failure to act and our own failure to demand appropriate changes and Aquifer protections?
Institutional Issues

Perhaps the most difficult and the most important issues to deal with are institutional ones. These include the institution of culture which is very hard to change. We also have to deal with the fact that currently there are hundreds of management institutions involved, many of which care about an area only as large as their borders. Some of the issues are:

  • How can we overcome the notion that use of groundwater is a God-given right and that every landowner has a "right" to free water?
  • How can we overcome regional parochialisms and get everyone to see that we are all in this together? The agricultural, urban, and recreational users are often pitted one against the other, yet we really have only one common resource.
  • How can we change negative cultural attitudes regarding the reuse of water? Tertiary treated wastewater effluent is of much higher quality than stormwater, and it could easily be made potable and used again, either directly or as Aquifer recharge. How do we convince people that water can be recycled and is just as good?
  • What are society's priorities when water is scarce?
  • What kind of management institution can we design that people will trust and accept?
  • Don't we need the boundaries of management institutions to be defined along hydrogeologic lines instead of political ones? How does the recent proliferation of politically-drawn groundwater conservation districts complicate matters?
  • How sort of institution do we need to implement conjunctive management of surface water and ground water? Will it be the EAA, the TCEQ, or some hybrid?
  • If the primary responsibility of the EAA was to allocate groundwater rights, and if that task is essentially complete, and if responsibility for protecting water quality does not belong to the EAA, do we still need the EAA? Should it be disbanded or absorbed into the TCEQ?
  • How can we build flexibility into institutions so they can adapt to new scientific understandings of Aquifer structures and functions?