Medina County Judge Chris Schuchart asked Bexar County commissioners to join his county in protecting the Edwards Aquifer. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Bexar County could soon join the fray in a legal battle over water rights that highlights the conflict between the fast-growing cities and suburbs around San Antonio and agricultural areas that also depend on the Edwards Aquifer.

On Friday, Medina County Judge Chris Schuchart appeared in Bexar County Commissioners Court. He asked commissioners to join his county and all its major municipalities to intervene to support the Edwards Aquifer Authority in a legal fight with the Uvalde County Underground Water Conservation district and other entities.

Both Bexar and Medina counties are experiencing explosive urban and suburban growth with an increasing demand for water for municipal use, while Uvalde County remains a more rural and agriculturally-based county. All rely on the Edwards Aquifer as their primary water supply.

“We need that water to convert for our growth, just like Bexar County needs that water to convert for your growth,” Schuchart told commissioners.

Some Bexar County commissioners seemed inclined to join the lawsuit, with Precinct 3 Commissioner Kevin Wolff motioning to join it immediately. Precinct 1 Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez seconded the motion.

Wolff later withdrew his motion to give District Attorney Nico LaHood’s office time to review the case. Commissioners said they would reconsider the issue at their Sept. 4 meeting.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority regulates pumping of the Edwards Aquifer, a vast water-bearing limestone rock layer that serves as the main water supply for the region. Its territory includes all of Uvalde, Medina, and Bexar counties, and parts of Atascosa, Caldwell, Comal, Guadalupe, and Hays counties.

The Texas Legislature created the authority in 1993 via the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act. It set a cap of 572,000 acre-feet a year of total pumping from the Edwards by all its users. One acre-foot is 325,851 gallons.

That created a water market in which water-rights holders can buy, sell, and lease their water rights. Producing Edwards water costs the San Antonio Water System between $386 and $704 per acre-foot, depending on specifics, according to the utility’s most recent management plan.

However, those costs include pumping, treatment, and other factors, said Darren Thompson, SAWS director of water resources. As an example of market rates, Thompson said SAWS recently considered acquiring them for a range of $118 to $130 an acre-foot.

One provision in the act, aimed at protecting farmers, required that half of the water permitted to be pumped for irrigation must be permanently tied to the irrigated land and used for irrigation only. Water wonks call this “base irrigation groundwater.”

In December, the authority’s board of directors voted to amend its rules to allow permit holders to convert this water from base irrigation to another use, such as for new housing developments.

That raised alarms with the Uvalde County Underground Water Conservation District, which has no jurisdiction over the Edwards Aquifer but regulates all of the other minor aquifers in that county. Officials at the Uvalde district attended the authority’s December meeting and spoke out against the rule change.

“I told them then that it wasn’t legal,” said Vic Hilderbran, general manager of the Uvalde district. “We would be happy to go with them to the Legislature to change it and fix it so what they wanted to do was possible with certain modifications. I’m gonna be nice about this and say they declined.”

Roland Ruiz, the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s general manager, said the rule change is in line with the Legislature’s intent to “strike a balance between the sustainable management of the Edwards resource and the continuation of support of economic development of the region.”

“What happens when property gets developed and property that was once farmed can no longer be farmed?” Ruiz said. “Does the water associated with that just go away? Our board thought that was an absurd outcome, and that water is needed to meet future demand.”

In January, the Uvalde water district sued the authority, with plaintiffs that included two Uvalde County farmers, George and Carolyn Ligocky, whose involvement likely gave the district the standing it needed to sue.

Uvalde County and the City of Uvalde later joined the lawsuit on the side of the Uvalde water district.

In July, a judge issued an injunction that temporarily barred the authority from converting any more base irrigation rights. At the time, there were nine permit holders seeking to do so. The judge’s order allowed seven to proceed, Ruiz said.

In court filings, the Uvalde plaintiffs argued the authority was violating the Legislature’s intent in a way that would would end up hurting Uvalde County’s economy.

Hilderbran said the Edwards water market has already caused many Uvalde County farmers to sell or lease the non-base half of their water rights to developers or entities like the San Antonio Water System. He said this had caused a decline in farming in the county.

“We used to have four packing sheds,” he said. “We have two packing sheds now. There was a lot of people that grew three crops around here. Now they’re down to one and two.”

In interviews with the Rivard Report, Schuchart said Hilderbran’s and the others’ concerns are overblown. According to numbers provided by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, of the 68,745 acre-feet of total base irrigation rights in Uvalde County, only 146 acre-feet, or .2 percent, have been converted.

“They say it’s leaving, but if you look at the numbers, it’s really not,” Schuchart said.

Hilderbran didn’t dispute this but said he is trying to be proactive before more water rights leave the county.

“It’s not happening today, but when you transfer that water out of here, it’s never coming back,” he said. “After it changes hands and goes to somebody like SAWS or a developer in San Antone, it’s not gonna come back here.”

Schuchart said that with the injunction in place, landowners and developers in Medina County don’t have access to water rights they thought they had.

“In Castroville, it’s surrounded by land. There’s developers that own that land … that want to develop it,” Schuchart said. “And there’s some people trying to buy land that has base [irrigation rights]. That puts a dark cloud on everything now, because if I’m going to spent $15,000 an acre for this land, I want the water.”

Schuchart said the Medina County entities have hired Norton Rose Fullbright, a heavy-hitting international law firm with offices in San Antonio. Their petition for intervention is “ready to go,” he said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.