LEXINGTON — When the water finally arrived, San Antonio’s leadership could relax. The roughly 150-mile long water pipeline to the northeast guaranteed the city’s economic future and freed residents from the stress of droughts.

“We have water security for decades to come,” said Robert Puente, president and CEO of the San Antonio Water System. Puente called the project, which came online in April 2020, the “biggest achievement in our lifetimes” to secure water for the city. The pipeline helped conserve the sensitive Edwards Aquifer, upon which San Antonio has historically depended for water.

But less than a year after the pipeline began to suck water from a different aquifer in Central Texas for delivery to 1.8 million people, some residents in that rural area turned on their taps only to be greeted by air.

“All so that the people in the city of San Antonio can water their lawns,” said Bob Scouras, 72, a landowner in Lee County.

Out on County Road 411, Scouras and his wife, Leslie, 63, raised and later sold their horses, raised kids and sent them to college, built dozens of houses for birds, and are almost done building one for their family. They commuted to Austin until retirement, as did many of their neighbors. The community is mostly retirees who bought the lush farmland decades ago for cheap.

They live near the wells that pump water to San Antonio, and their own well started sputtering less than a year after the Vista Ridge project went online. The Scourases live in a small farmhouse on their 20 acres of property. It was supposed to be temporary while they built their permanent home, but that took a little longer than expected (more than a decade). The house is almost done, and they plan to move in within a few weeks. But now, they’re not sure if they’ll have enough water to live on the land much longer.

“They didn’t care that I would be out of drinking water — they would have green lawns,” he said.

The situation underscores how important groundwater has become to Texas’ water future as climate change brings more frequent droughts along with longer and hotter summers, at the same time as the state’s population approaches 35 million. During the state’s most recent severe drought in 2011, groundwater supplied almost two-thirds of the increase in water consumption.

“The growth that we’ve had [in Texas], water ultimately underpins at a very fundamental level,” said Gabriel Collins, a Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University.

A severe drought in the Western U.S. this year has forced some areas to halt development due to water constraints, while other regions are battling widespread wildfires. A 2019 study authored by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists found that droughts are part of the spiral of climate change: High temperatures from global warming combined with low soil moisture to produce stronger heat waves.

But some rural landowners see the water export project in Central Texas not as a prudent response to climate change but as the perfect example of how unchecked urban expansion is encroaching on their lives. Pitting cities against rural dwellers and economic growth against environmental conservation, the Vista Ridge project, some experts said, is a preview of the water wars that will grow worse across Texas in coming decades. The fastest-growing use of water in Texas is no longer agriculture, but municipal, according to the state’s water plan, and municipal needs are projected to outstrip irrigation by 2060.

The burgeoning development of groundwater is also happening in a state with a patchwork of water laws that essentially allows anyone who owns or leases enough land — and the water below — to pump water, regardless of whether it affects neighboring properties for miles around. And because political boundaries don’t follow the natural underground water flows and formations, local regulations on pumping don’t necessarily protect everyone whose water wells are affected.

Since April 2020, when the project came online, groundwater levels in the area near Vista Ridge wells have plummeted, according to well data from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District. Texas is the third-largest groundwater pumper in the nation, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

The Vista Ridge project is permitted to pump nearly 56,000 acre-feet of water per year from the Carrizo and Simsboro formations. As the groundwater level retreats in their wells, residents have been forced to extend their pumps farther underground and upgrade to stronger equipment that can bring the water up from new depths. The work can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and there’s no guarantee they won’t have to drill deeper in the future.

Bob and Leslie Scouras spent about $5,000 on such work. Many of their older neighbors in the rural area were forced to do the same.

“It’s all about the money, and it’s all about the growth,” Bob Scouras said. “It’s not about anyone being thirsty.”

Leaders in San Antonio disagree. “The economic generators of the U.S. are cities,” said Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. “Rural areas are still important,” he said, “but cities are what is driving the state and the country.”

Water levels sink

Private water marketers worked over the course of a decade to put together thousands of water leases from rural landowners in the rolling and lush cattle ranch land of Burleson and Milam counties, about 50 miles east of Austin, to make the Vista Ridge project possible. The 18 water wells tap the Carrizo and Simsboro formations of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which underlies a long, narrow swath of the state from its southwest border to East Texas. Now operated by EPCOR, a Canadian utility company, the wells connect to the pipeline that runs southwest to a water station in Bexar County.

In the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, which includes Milam and Burleson counties, more than a third of its water pumped from the Carrizo and almost three fourths of its pumped water from the Simsboro is flowing to San Antonio, according to data from the district. There, the imported water now fills about 20% of the city’s daily water needs.

Beginning last fall, dozens of landowners in Lee, Burleson, and Milam counties — including some beyond the boundaries of the local groundwater district — began to notice problems with their wells as water dropped below the level their pumps could reach.

George Rice, a groundwater hydrologist in San Antonio who represented landowners opposed to the project, said he wasn’t surprised that residents now need to lower their pumps. The model that Rice created for his analysis in 2015 and 2016 predicted that, in one year of pumping, the Carrizo formation’s water level would drop by 54 feet within 5 miles of the Vista Ridge pumping, and 19 feet within a 10-mile radius in what is called the “confined zone” of the aquifer — pressurized sections of the aquifer that are sandwiched between impermeable rock or sand above and below. Such drops can put water levels out of reach of local residents’ pumps.

“If they’re lucky, they’ll just have to lower their pump, or if they’re unlucky, they’ll have to deepen their wells, which is more expensive,” Rice said.

Dan Martin, a retired cattle rancher who lives near the Vista Ridge wells in Burleson County, said his water stopped flowing while he was in the shower, “all soaped up.” He spent about $10,000 to fix the problem with his well, which he uses both for his home and 35 cattle — he had to pay for a new pump and piping to take the well 380 feet deeper.

Data from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, where the Vista Ridge wells are located, confirms anecdotal reports from residents. The district regulates use of groundwater in Milam and Burleson counties, but its decisions can also affect the aquifer’s conditions beyond the political borders. The district’s data shows water levels in several wells nearby have dropped dramatically. At a water well on County Road 324, about five miles from a cluster of Vista Ridge wells, water levels have sunk almost 100 feet since April 2020. That’s more than the well’s water had dropped in the 30 years since the district’s records began.

The change also cannot be explained by a drier year than normal. During the 2011 drought, which was much more severe than the conditions in 2020, the well near Caldwell lost only about 8 feet of water.

But the dropping water levels are allowed — even expected — under the permits that Vista Ridge received from the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, as long as the project doesn’t exceed its permitted pumping limit.

“How we developed the wellfield ensured that there was sufficient spacing and pumpage rates so that any potential decline over time would be well within the limits [set by the groundwater district],” said Mark Janay, operating partner at Ridgewood Infrastructure, a New York infrastructure company that is the majority owner of the Vista Ridge project.

When asked how the company has mitigated impacts to local landowners’ wells, Janay said the company draws primarily from the deeper Simsboro formation, which landowners don’t rely on, and that the pumping from the Carrizo is limited by the local groundwater district.

Hydrologists for Ridgewood and the groundwater district said the impacts to the water levels should taper off after a big initial drop. That’s what the groundwater districts are now monitoring for.

In Lee County, Nancy and Ronnie McKee spent $720 to lower their well pump in November. Well levels had plunged by 43 feet in seven months, more than in the previous 30 years. Nancy McKee said she attended public meetings in the years before the project began operating and was told she had nothing to worry about.

“They said, ‘It’s not going to affect you,’” she said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

McKee said she and her neighbors feel forgotten by local officials and ignored in the process of endless urbanization.

“We’re just regular people,” she said. “For this to come up and be such an expense for us is so disheartening.”

San Antonio thirsts for security

San Antonio began to seriously consider diversifying its water supply in the 1990s when environmentalists won a lawsuit to protect the Edwards Aquifer, which the city had relied upon for decades. Overuse was causing damage to endangered species, and as a result, the city’s allowed extractions from the aquifer were cut by 44% during severe droughts. San Antonio began to look elsewhere for water — a politically arduous task because importing water would be extremely expensive and potentially damaging to the environment.

But in 2011, the political climate shifted: One of the worst droughts in Texas history convinced San Antonio’s City Council to approve a water rate hike for water development. Suddenly, local politicians were in favor of building a desalination plant, practicing more aggressive water conservation and building the $3 billion Vista Ridge pipeline. The business community went on a “quest” to diversify water sources because fears of water shortages were hurting economic development, said Perez, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO.

“The 2011 drought was happening right during the time that we were starting to develop [Vista Ridge],” said Puente, of the San Antonio Water System. “The public’s perception of the urgency and need for the project was heightened.”

Most major cities in Texas rely on surface water, like reservoirs, for municipal needs. But those sources are particularly vulnerable to drought because the water evaporates. The 2011 drought caused billions in economic damages to the agricultural industry, strained the state’s electric grid and forced nearly 1,000 public water systems to restrict water usage; 23 water systems were within 180 days of completely running out of water. In San Antonio, the city relied on water it had previously pumped from the Edwards Aquifer and stored underground.

Because of such possibilities in the future, San Antonio’s strategy to diversify its water supply with a desalination plant, conservation and the Vista Ridge groundwater pipeline could be considered a model for other cities. The alternative — building a new reservoir — requires buying the land and relocating people, farms or businesses on it, then damming a river or creek and flooding the land.

Janay, of Ridgewood Infrastructure, thinks more groundwater projects will likely be necessary across Texas. It’s a matter of managing the impacts, which he thinks the Vista Ridge project has done by adhering to the groundwater district’s limits.

“We’re going to have to be more thoughtful in developing future supplies, and we may have to go further and transport water further,” Janay said. Continued groundwater development can occur, he said, “in a thoughtful manner that is supported by science.”

“We need to find that balance,” he said.

Texas’ ‘patchwork’ of groundwater regulation

Despite the growing importance of groundwater, Texas is the only state in the West — where water is particularly scarce — that still uses the “rule of capture,” which essentially allows landowners to pump as much groundwater from their property as they want without facing liability from surrounding landowners.

But Collins, of Rice University, said a patchwork of local rules from the 98 groundwater conservation districts in the state means the rule is applied in many ways, including where different districts have different rules for the same large aquifer. More than 20 districts regulate water use for the massive Carrizo-Wilcox, which spans from East to Southwest Texas.

The Vista Ridge Project took advantage of those differences. San Antonio water officials said the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District, where the project is now located, allowed landowners to lease their water for several decades at a time, while many other districts limit leases to a few years.

“[The district] has a philosophy that a lot of other groundwater districts do not, and that is that this is a private water resource: If you want to sell it, sell it,” said Puente of the San Antonio Water System. “They regulate it, but they still allow for those transactions to happen.

“So this was the best water for us for two reasons: Geographically, the aquifer is very prolific, and politically, just as important, those rules in that county allowed for the exportation of water all the way to San Antonio.”

Groundwater districts are charged by the Legislature to create a goal for how much water should be conserved in the coming decades, a target called “desired future conditions.” The districts use that goal to set limits on pumping. But those limits vary widely from district to district, and as long as a company pumps less than the permitted amount, the groundwater district isn’t obligated to intervene when a neighbor’s supply is affected.

The Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District responded to dwindling groundwater levels with a well mitigation program that compensates landowners for the cost to lower their pumps or even drill a new well. Groundwater officials said the limits they’ve set in the district are sufficient to conserve water in the region, and the landowners who agreed to lease water for the project have a right to do what they want with the water below their land.

“We’ve been diligent about being conservation-minded, but also respectful of property rights,” said Gary Westbrook, general manager of the groundwater district. “People have the right to sell their water if that’s what they want to do.”

Outside that district, though, landowners who didn’t lease their water — or even know that their neighbors had done so — have seen water levels drop. The Scouras and McKee families both live in Lee County, in the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.

The Lost Pines district didn’t grant any permit to Vista Ridge, nor did it collect any fees from the project, but it will soon have to pay to fix wells. In response to complaints from landowners, James Totten, general manager of the Lost Pines district, said the district recently created a program to reimburse landowners for the cost to lower or upgrade their pumps, and it is considering a moratorium on pumping water in areas where the water levels have dramatically dropped in the last year.

“We may not have the ability to control Vista Ridge, but we can say we won’t allow any project that would make the situation in that area worse on our side of the border,” Totten said.

But those efforts won’t stop the longer-term impact of exporting water south to San Antonio, residents say. Bob Scouras is worried that if the water levels don’t stabilize, his neighborhood will soon have to ask the nearest water utility to build lines out to the property.

“The big question is: Where the hell are we going to get our water in five years?” he said. “San Antonio is not real worried about us out here. We’re just a bunch of hayseeds [to them].”

Disclosure: Rice University, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Water System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.

Erin Douglas, The Texas Tribune

Erin Douglas is the environment reporter for the Texas Tribune.