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Edwards Aquifer News for 2015

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December 2015

Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan approved

On December 18, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced approval of the final Southern Edwards Plateau Habitat Conservation Plan, which provides a streamlined path for development while protecting endangered species.

The initial impetus for the Plan was concerns in 2008 about rampant development around Camp Bullis. By extension, protecting habitats for the covered species will also assist in Edwards Aquifer protection.

At full implementation, the Plan envisions that a minimum of 23,430 acres of habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler will be protected, at least 6,600 acres for the Black-capped Vireo, and at least 1,000 acres for the karst invertebrates.

Read the details about the Plan development and download a copy on the Rules and Regs page.

San Antonio moves to Year-Round restrictions

On December 2, in light of plentiful fall rains that raised springflow rates and the level of the J-17 index well, San Antonio moved to Year-Round water management measures.

SAWS customers in San Antonio are now allowed to use irrigation systems or hose-end sprinklers any day of the week before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m. See the full list of Year-Round rules here.

November 2015

EAA lifts Stage 1 restrictions

On November 9 the Edwards Aquifer Authority lifted Stage 1 pumping restrictions, leaving permit holders without any mandated pumping reductions.

San Antonio continued to observe its Stage 2 restrictions. Watering with a sprinkler, soaker hose or irrigation system is allowed only during the hours of 7 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. on your designated day, as determined by the last number of your street address. Areas without a street address, such as medians and neighborhood entryways, water on Wednesday.

October 2015

City deeds 19 land parcels to SARA for San Pedro project

On October 15, the city of San Antonio deeded 19 parcels valued at $4.1 million to the San Antonio River Authority, which gives SARA some of the necessary rights-of-way to widen San Pedro Creek, install walkways, and make connections to surrounding streets.

All of this is part of SARA's Westside Creeks Improvement Project, which it launched in 2009 to accomplish restoration of San Pedro Creek and also Alazan, Apache, and Martinez Creeks. The goal is to apply design improvements in the flood control channels, create stable banks during flooding events, ensure erosion control, protect water quality during normal flow, and create habitat for fish, water fowl, and other birds and wildlife.

In addtion, the vision for San Pedro Creek is to reconstitute its life-giving qualities, reflect on its rich history and create a sense of place. San Pedro Creek was a vibrant part of early San Antonio, with many residents relying on it for both food and recreation.

For more details, see the page on San Pedro Springs. If you only read one page on this site, it should be that one. The site has an astoundingly rich history that was integral to early San Antonio. It is truly one of the most important places in the southwest United States, but even most locals are unaware.

September 2015

Momentum toward permanent Stage 1 water restrictions seems to grow

In the summer of 2015, as the city ping-ponged from Stage 2 to Year-Round to Stage 1 to Stage 2 water restrictions, many began discussing the notion of simply making the Stage 1 restrictions the year-round norm.

A lot has happened in the 20 years since San Antonians were first introduced to the idea that a brown lawn is actually a badge of honor. They have learned there are many alternatives to lawns and it's possible to have a really nice landscape without using a lot of water. We have witnessed a cultural shift that probably means San Antonio is ready to embrace year-round landscape watering limits.

In August, Councilman Ron Nirenberg called for the permanent adoption of Stage 1 restrictions, and the Express-News Editorial Board quickly chimed in with support. The San Antonio Water System began exploring the possibility and seeking public input, and city staff and Council members also began considering making the matter part of a larger city initiative to establish its own long-range strategic water management plan.

On September 16, the city's Governance Committee heard a presentation from staff and then voted unanimously to have the city's Transportation, Technology, and Utilities Committee agree on a proposal to make Stage 1 water restrictions permanent.

The following day, the Rivard Report noted "The wheels of government turning slowly on the issue might not make headlines, but the underlying premise - that San Antonio's cycles of drought make relaxed water restrictions unrealistic as the city's population grows and sprawls - suggests the eventual conclusion will be a City Council vote on the matter sometime in 2016."

If you were here in the 70s and 80s you remember when all of San Antonio looked like this. Lush greenscapes of high-water using St. Augustine grass were a tradition, and we all ran through the sprinklers at 3:00 in the afternoon without a care in the world for conservation.   Today many people realize you can have a pretty nice landscape without using much water. This homeowner in Helotes has a small area in front of the house with native and low-water using plants, and the rest of the property is a wildscape where no water is applied at all (ok ok yes, it's my own house).

August 2015

Historic Rancho Blanco to be protected by conservation easement

In August the San Antonio City Council approved buying a conservation easement on a beautiful and historic 1,100 acre property just north of Helotes known as Rancho Blanco, or White Ranch. City officials pointed out the ranch is directly in the path of the city's fastest growing region, and that avoiding future development on the tract will help protect sensitive Aquifer recharge features and recharge water quality.

The ranch was founded by the White family in 1926 and is considered a prime example of an early 20th century Texas cattle ranch. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About half of the funds for the $7 million purchase will come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative designed to preserve farm and ranch land threatened by urban encroachment. The remainder will come from funds generated by the 1/8 cent sales tax designed for parks and Aquifer protection which voters just re-authorized in May. Councilman Ron Nirenberg said "This is really emblematic of how the Aquifer Protection System can really work, and this is the cheapest way to provide long term water security in San Antonio."

San Antonio moves to Stage 2

On August 14 San Antonio announced a return to Stage 2 of its drought management plan.

Stage 2 of the city's drought plan is triggered when the 10-day average of the Edwards Aquifer at the J-17 monitoring well drops to 650 feet or below. Per city ordinance, City Manager Sheryl Sculley in consultation with Robert R. Puente, President/CEO of San Antonio Water System, declared Stage 2 management rules are in effect.

"The Texas Climate includes extremes in weather," said Robert R. Puente. "SAWS considers this in our water supply planning. Our alternative sources of water, like Canyon Lake and Carrizo Aquifer sources, have helped slow the decline in the Edwards Aquifer. These other sources, in addition to reasonable landscape watering restrictions, provide for San Antonio's well-balanced response to the dry summer conditions."

Watering days stay the same in Stage 2 as in Stage 1, however the hours during which watering is allowed are shortened. Watering with a sprinkler, soaker hose or irrigation system is allowed only during the hours of 7 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. on your designated day, as determined by the last number of your street address. Areas without a street address, such as medians and neighborhood entryways, water on Wednesday.

Watering days begin and end at midnight; overnight watering is prohibited. Watering with a handheld hose is still allowed any day, any time. See the full list of San Antonio Stage 2 restrictions.

GG Ranch challenge to EAA dismissed

On August 5, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals the case styled GG Ranch, LTD, et al, v. the Edwards Aquifer Authority, et al. If it had been successful, the case would potentially have had far reaching impacts for the Edwards region. In the GG Ranch case, landowners who never used any Edwards water during the historical time period on which Edwards rights were based filed an application anyway and were denied. They subsequently sued in the Texas Western District Court, alleging their property was taken in violation of the Texas and United States constitutions. The case was removed to a federal court, which granted a moton by the EAA to dismiss all claims. The court held the GG Ranch plaintiffs failed to state a claim for an equal protection or due process violation, the EAA's permitting scheme and implementation of the scheme is rational, and the plaintiffs were barred from a takings claim by the statute of limitations. The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, but missed a deadline to file a brief, so the Appeals court dismissed the case.

Tesla proposal for showroom facility fails to get Zoning Commission support

On August 5 the San Antonio Zoning Commission failed to support a request for a zoning change that would allow the Tesla Motors company to build a showroom near Leon Creek just south of the La Cantera shopping mall.

The sticking point mainly involved the number of batteries that Tesla proposed to keep on the site, which is very close to Aquifer recharge features in the Creek. SAWS recommended that no more than 10 batteries be on site at a time, but Tesla asked for 20. SAWS also recommended other precautions, including an onsite water quality basin that would catch and purify runoff.

Before voting against the proposal, Commissioner Orlando Salazar said "There are too many other places in San Antonio (for this facility) that wouldn't have an impact on our drinking water. This is just not wise, you don't do this."

Five commissioners did in fact vote in favor of the zoning change, as long as it complied with the 10 battery limit and all other SAWS requirements, but a majority of six votes are required for approval and three members were not present.

July 2015

New Edwards model finds little potential for saline water intrustion

In cooperation with the San Antonio Water System, the United States Geological Survey developed a new model with a focus on simulating the interaction between freshwater and saline water where they mix in the area called the brackish-water transition zone.

The model results indicate that effects on fresh water during a severe drought would be minor.

USGS scientist Linzy Brakefield said "While the model shows little potential for movement of brackish water into freshwater, the research suggests there is a need for an improved understanding of some parts of the Edwards Aquifer flow system. Better knowledge of how the Aquifer is recharged and the relationship between recharge, pumping, and springflow is needed. With the new developments from this study there is potential to develop more accurate models in the future."

In addition to modeling changes in salinity near the brackish-water transition zone, the model also attempted to predict the effects of higher than average groundwater withdrawals and drought-of-record rainfall conditions on spring discharges at Comal and San Marcos Springs and on J-17 Index Well levels. The results were much different than the salinity component. The researchers concluded that predictions of spring discharge and J-17 levels made with the model are not reliable, probably because many more parameters are potentially controlling these predictions than the prediction of salinity changes in wells near the transition zone.

You can get the entire report here.


EAA, San Antonio return to Stage 1

On July 30 the EAA announced a return to Stage 1 pumping restrictions for users in the San Antonio Pool of the Edwards.

Stage I is triggered when the 10-day rolling average of the J-17 Index Well falls below 660' or when flows at Comal or San Marcos springs reach certain trigger levels.

Springflows are well above the trigger levels but the J-17 has been declining rapidly with dry weather in July.

SAWS manages a portfolio of water sources that give it flexibility in determining when and if conservation measures are imposed on its customers. In this case San Antonio, in consultation with SAWS, decided to also move to Stage 1 drought restrictions.

Watering with an irrigation system, sprinkler or soaker hose is allowed only once a week before 11 a.m. or after 7 p.m. on your designated watering day. See the full list of San Antonio Stage 1 restrictions.

June 2015

San Antonio returns to Year-Round water use rules

After generous rains in May, on June 10 San Antonio returned to Year-Round water conservation measures.

San Antonio Water System CEO Robert Puente said “We are hoping that citizens will continue their water-saving ways and continue to be restrained about outdoor water use. While the once-a-week restrictions have been lifted, no one should need to do any outdoor watering for the near future.”

Under Year-Round water use rules, residents can water with an irrigation system or hose-end sprinkler any day between 7 p.m. and 11 a.m.

May 2015

Voters approve Aquifer protection by widest margin ever

On May 9, 78% of San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a re-authorization of a sales tax that generates funds for Aquifer protection and linear parks. It was first approved in 2000 and a measure to generate funds for linear parks was added in 2005. Voters re-approved both in 2010. So this marks the fourth time that San Antonians have demonstrated their commitment to protection of Edwards Aquifer water quality.

Read about the long and storied history of attempts to protect the Edwards on the Water Quality section of the Laws and Regulations page.

Texas Supreme Court lets lower court ruling stand in Bragg case

On May 1 the Texas Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling in the Bragg case, thereby letting it stand. The lower court ruled that a taking occurred when the Edwards Aquifer Authority limited the ability of pecan farmers Glenn and JoLynn Bragg to pump water from under their land. Although it marked the first time that a landowner in Texas had a ruling that groundwater rights were taken by a groundwater conservation district, the long term implications may be much larger for other groundwater districts than for the EAA or for the Edwards region. You can read the whole story of the Bragg case here.

EAA returns to Stage 1, San Antonio remains in Stage 2

Generous April rains and rising springflow levels prompted the Edwards Aquifer Authority to declare a return to Stage 1 of its Critical Period Management Plan for the San Antonio pool of the Edwards on May 1. San Antonio remained in Stage 2 of its drought restrictions, in which watering with an irrigation system or sprinkler is allowed on your designated day once a week from 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m.

April 2015

Plan for renewal of San Pedro Creek approved by Commissioners Court

On April 14, the Bexar County Commissioners Court approved preliminary designs for a transformation of San Pedro Creek into a new urban amenity, hopefully to be completed in time for the city's 300th anniversary celebration in May of 2018. Since San Antonio was founded on the banks of San Pedro Creek, the project may be central to the party.

Highlights include a new ampitheater, four miles of trails, new and refurbished bridges, and artworks that weave in the colorful history of the area. Various sections will be themed to highlight the past and projected uses of each particular stretch of the Creek. County Judge Nelson Wolff said the project is a "game-changer" for downtown. Read all about the long and important history of San Pedro Springs and the Creek on the San Pedro Springs page.

March 2015

Controversy over unregulated Trinity wells heats up, involves new challenge to rule of capture

I moved the discussion of this to the Trinity Aquifer page so you can read the full story in one place.

February 2015

Group formed to protect Trinity, Edwards Aquifers and springs

On February 25 the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association announced its formation as a non-profit corporation to protect the Edwards and Trinity Aquifers and their associated springs.

A news release said that TESPA was formed as a response to the attempt by a private company - Electro Purification - to develop and sell 5.1 million gallons per day of groundwater from the Trinity Aquifer.

TESPA board member and noted environmental attorney Jim Blackburn said:

TESPA plans to focus its legal efforts under two key approaches initially. First, the Edwards Aquifer Authority has failed to take regulatory authority over the Electro Purification proposal and we dispute that determination based on the many interconnections between the Edwards and Trinity Aquifers through this fractured limestone geology. And second, we believe that there is a fundamental conflict between the Texas Supreme Court's ruling in the Day case and the way that the Rule of Capture works with regard to groundwater. These are controversial issues and we intend to pursue them in the court system.

See the complete news release here.

The Day case referred to involved landowners Burrell Day and Joel McDaniel, in which the Texas Supreme Court affirmed that landowners also own groundwater and that "a landowner cannot be deprived of all beneficial use of the groundwater below his property merely because he did not use it during an historical period and supply is limited." Historic use was the basis of the allocation of Edwards Aquifer pumping rights. For more on Day and McDaniel see the Laws and Regs page.

Aquifer mapping pioneer Paul Rettman passes away

Paul L. Rettman, one of the hydrologists who mapped the flow systems in the Edwards Aquifer, passed away on February 9 at the age of 81.

His work in the 1970s and 80s was fundamental to our understanding of how the Edwards works. Together with Ted Small and Robert MacLay, he developed much of the basic information that is still relied on today. Their work was the scientific foundation on which today's Edwards management methods are based.

Rettman started his career with the State Board of Water Engineers in the 1950s, working mainly on the Ogallala Aquifer. Since his work was intermingled with projects being done by the United States Geological Survey Water Resources Division, he transferred to that agency and moved to San Antonio as part of the group that started the USGS office in San Antonio.

He was also a valuable mentor to students and other professionals. Many remember him as an intellingent, unassuming man who treated everyone with courtesy and respect and was always willing to share his deep knowledge and experience.

January 2015

Pumpers in San Antonio pool return to Stage 2 management measures

On January 30 the Edwards Aquifer Authority confirmed a return to Stage 2 of its Critical Period Management Plan, which requires pumpers to cut back by 30%.

The management stages are triggered by 10-day averages of both index well levels and springflow rates, and conditions were satisfied on January 28.

Nothing changed for San Antonio residents, which had remained under the city's Stage 2 restrictions. Other cities in the region had to implement stricter measures to meet the pumping cutbacks required by EAA, but San Antonio is able to draw on multiple alternate water sources and can meet the cutbacks in Edwards pumping without imposing measures that may be required in cities that do not have other water sources.

Controversy over Edwards protection program results in May ballot measure

In January, City Council members Ron Nirenberg and Ray Lopez filed a Council Consideration request that sought to extend the Edwards Aquifer Protection Program and the Linear Creekway Parks Development Program, both of which are supported by a 1/8 cent sales tax. The tax is set to expire this year.

Voters previously approved the tax in 2000, 2005, and 2010 by overwhelming margins. So far, more than 130,000 acres of sensitive Edwards land has been protected through purchase or conservation easements, and about 46 miles of trails and hike and bike paths have been completed on creekways throughout the city.

Most of the protected land lies west of the city, because water flows in the Aquifer from west to east, from the major recharge areas in Medina and Uvalde counties, underneath Bexar county, then on to Comal and San Marcos springs in Comal and Hays counties.

By using a market-based approach in which willing sellers offer the development rights on their property, the Edwards program has become an international model for water quality protection.

As for the Creekways program, I have been in a helicopter flying the length of Leon Creek on a weekday afternoon and was astounded by the number of people using the trail system for walking, biking, and running.

The proposal by Nirenberg and Lopez immediately began to get some push back from Mayor Ivy Taylor and others on the Council who questioned the long-term goals of the programs and suggested at least some the money might be better spent on other community priorities such as public transit, renovation of Alamo Plaza, or even other pet projects like a new sports stadium.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said "I'm wondering if there's a way to continue to achieve the goals we've focused on with those programs and tie them in with other things we want to do in the community."

Council member Joe Krier said "The idea of buying up property in other counties, I think, at least for me and for other people that I've spoken to is an uneasy feeling."

Almost no one who has had anything to do with the Edwards Aquifer in the last 40 years liked the suggestion the tax should be allowed to expire or be revamped to provide funds for other initiatives.

In a guest column for the Rivard Report, Jim Smyle offered five reasons the Aquifer Protection Program should be extended, which included the fact that water security is a #1 priority for San Antonio, the cost efficiency of protection versus water treatment, the simplicity of the approach, the respect for private property rights the program employs, and the notion that it is a free-market solution.

The Express-News Editorial Board chimed in, saying the conservation program should be put on the May ballot and "Those who believe there are better uses for these funds can make their case to voters this election. If voters choose to reject the Edwards Aquifer protection or linear parks, then we can have a discussion about new priorities at that time."

As for when the program should end, former Mayor Phil Hardberger bluntly said "Never, probably." Long-time readers will recall that Hardberger was one of the early pioneers in Aquifer protection, serving as the lawyer for groups that opposed a massive development over the Edwards in the early 1970s (see the story on the Laws and Regulations page).

By mid-January, other community power players were throwing their support behind a straight-up ballot measure to renew the tax. In a front-page headline story on January 24, the Express-News reported Air Force Brigadier General Robert LaBrutta, commander of Joint Base San Antonio, had sent a letter supporting renewal of the program and pointing out the programs helps lessen the impact of development around Camp Bullis. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce board unanimously voted to support continuation of both the Aquifer protection and linear parks program.

On January 24, the Rivard Report broke the news that voters would have a chance to continue both programs unchanged. In an email to supporters, Mayor Ivy Taylor said that if voters approve, "the Edwards Aquifer conservation easement purchase program will continue unchanged and fully funded. The creekway park development program will be accelerated. Both renewals will last for approximately five years based on projected sales tax revenue, to be collected beginning in 2016."

On January 29, City Council voted unanimously to place the sales tax renewal on the May 9 ballot.

New series of paintings depict ancient Edwards springs

As we focus on management of the Edwards Aquifer for the benefit of today's humans and endangered species, it is easy to overlook the long prehistory of the large Edwards springs.

For one thing, there is very little imagery to remind us of the very long and profound connection between these sites and the humans they have sustained for thousands of years. We are simply the latest in that chain of humanity.

For the descendants of native tribes, the Edwards spring sites are still sacred, places that are central to their traditions and religion.

In 2014, I commissioned artist Susan Dunis to create glimpses of these places as they may have appeared about 4,000 years ago. Working with historians, archaeologists, and hydrologists, we created a series of images that illustrate various aspects of the prehistoric cultural importance of the major Edwards springs.

All of these places have a record of human history stretching back at least 10,000 years and had great significance on many levels. For pure utility, hundreds of generations of people who visited or lived at these places hunted and gathered, built fires, cooked their foods, made tools, and carried out countless other ordinary daily-life activities.

On a social level, they were gathering places where diverse groups speaking different dialects and languages came together for feasts, special celebrations, courtship, trade, and negotiations.

On a sacred level, they were places where special rituals took place such as religious ceremonies and burial of the dead.

Why did we pick 4,000 years ago as the time to represent?

The answer lies in an ancient painting in the Lower Pecos region of southwest Texas known as the White Shaman panel. Natives believe the painting depicts the fountain springs of the Edwards Aquifer as part of a sacred geography, and the panel is nothing less than the earliest map of Texas. One of its functions was serving as a guide for a sacred pilgrimage that people would endeavour to undertake at least once in their lives.

The paintings follow a family of Coahuiltecan Indians from that time period as they make this pilgrimage from spring to spring. Each painting illustrates at least one aspect of the interaction people had with these places.

We may be reminded that we are not so far removed from those ancient people as we think; we still rely on these springs for many of the same things.

About the artist:

Susan A. Dunis is a painter and ceramist who has lived in Texas over 30 years and currently resides in Blanco. She studied at Lake Forest College and the Art Institute of Chicago before co-founding Dunis Studios Fine Art Tile in Bulverde, Texas.

The studio's handmade art tiles are known the world-over for their inherent beauty and quality and have been featured in dozens of high-profile installations, such as the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and a landmark mural on San Antonio's famed River Walk.

She is currently painting the rivers and springs of the Texas Hill Country at her studio and gallery in Blanco, Texas.

Barton Springs

The first painting in the series depicts Barton's Upper Spring, which still flows as a fountain when pressure in the Aquifer is high. For the younger persons on the voyage, this is the first fountain spring they have seen, and it elicits a sense of wonder and awe. The older travelers greet it like an old friend.

If you have seen Upper Spring flowing at fountain stage, whether just once or many times in your life, you have no doubt experienced the same feelings as those ancient persons. You are therefore bonded in spirit directly to those persons of 40 centuries ago.

San Marcos Springs

Of all the springs and sites that would have been visited on the Coahuiltecan pilgrimage, the San Marcos Springs are key. This is the creation site of the Coahuiltecan Indian tribes, shown here in ceremony.

Natives explain that when they were in their pre-human spirit form, they do not really know what they looked like. After following a deer through the underworld, they took on their human form when they emerged as people from the fountain springs of San Marcos.

Today the fountains are inundated under Spring Lake, although in recent years there is increasing discussion of removing the dam and restoring the natural beauty and dignity of this place by letting the springs be fountains once more.

The native tribes still maintain their covenant with sacred sites like San Marcos through the Indigenous Cultures Institute. Visit their site to learn more about their programs and sign up for a guided tour. They will tell you more about the significance of the other sacred animals and many other elements in this painting.

Comal Springs

In this painting, the theme is the use of the springs for everyday activity - cooking dinner. The site is still largely recognizable today, and the rock being used for cleaning a fish is still there, with traces of animal residue from thousands of cooking events still visible.

San Antonio Springs

In this painting of The Blue Hole, largest of the San Antonio Springs, the theme is trade. While the ladies enjoy some cool refreshment, men are bartering for goods which were painted using excavated artifacts in the Witte Museum collection as references.

San Pedro Springs

Here the theme is the use of the springs for gathering food and tools, and their use for simple pleasure and relaxation. While the younger family members take a swim in the sun-drenched springs, the men are selecting chert for point-making, collecting wild grapes, and fishing.