The catfish farm well.
The catfish farm well is seen during a site visit ahead of the plugging operation. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In March of 1991, Ronald Pucek Jr. had found the perfect place to drill for water at his 500-acre property southwest of San Antonio.

A previous well had produced modestly, but Pucek knew he needed more water to fulfill his dream: a massive aquaculture operation producing the finest catfish in Texas.

“There was a big oak tree in the middle of nowhere,” Pucek, then 32, recalled in a phone interview last week. “I thought, ‘Okey dokey, let’s do it right there.’”

It proved to be the right spot. As the drill cut into rock 1,670 feet deep, a geyser of water shot up out of the ground, throwing rocks into the air and breaking off a piece of the drill rig. Someone snapped a photo of Pucek standing near the well, water raining down on top of him.

“It felt good at the time,” said Pucek, now 60, recalling his well looking like a Texas oil gusher “like you see in the movies at Spindletop.”

“Little did I know that would be my demise,” he continued.

The well was the largest known artesian well in the U.S., producing 37,000 gallons per minute — more than 53 million gallons per day — from the Edwards Aquifer.

That was enough to supply a fourth of San Antonio’s use at the time, according to water officials.

The huge amount of water thrust Pucek straight into a series of long-running conflicts over the Edwards Aquifer, the region’s main water source.

In 1991, those struggles began to boil over. The outcome was a set of regulations meant to preserve the aquifer for all who depend on it. Today, the city’s water conservation efforts, its diversity of water supplies, its use of recycled water, and even the shape of city limits all came out of battles over the aquifer.

In the early 2000s, the San Antonio Water System paid more than $30 million to acquire all of the water rights that Pucek got through these new regulations. They added up to 22,500 acre-feet per year, or 7.3 billion gallons.

Today, that amount of Edwards water would cost nearly $123.8 million, according to SAWS.

The remains of Pucek’s catfish farm still sit on the property, the concrete basins now overgrown with brush and prickly pear. Since SAWS purchased the land and water rights, not much has happened at the site.

That was until last week, when SAWS brought another drilling rig to the property on the Medina River near Loop 1604 and Old Pearsall Road. This time, the rig would be used to stop more water from ever flowing up from the well again.

Concerned about the deteriorating casing and wellhead from the hot, mineral-laden water in the well, SAWS officials decided to use mud, gravel, and concrete to plug it. After the plugging, the property is eventually slated to become a San Antonio River Authority park.

“It’s time to get this one done,” said SAWS project coordinator Kevin Morrison, who was supervising the plugging operations at the site last week.

Pucek had no idea any of this would happen. As he tells it, he just wanted to raise some quality catfish.

Catfish dreams

As a young entrepreneur from Alvin, south of Houston, Pucek purchased the 500 acres near San Antonio for a place to keep 1,500 dairy cows he had acquired. (“It’s a long story,” he said.)

After he sold off the cattle, Pucek decided to get into the aquaculture business. He knew of a large catfish farm not far from his hometown, and he thought he could make a good living raising catfish and selling them to large meat companies.

He quickly found an investor, New Jersey developer Louis Blumberg. They named the operation Living Waters Artesian Springs.

With plans to build a series of concrete basins and a feeding system, Pucek set about finding the water he needed to make it all work.

The well he drilled turned out perfectly. Not only did it produce huge amounts, but the water came out at a constant warm temperature between 80 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, perfect for maintaining healthy catfish.

“They all look like little Arnold Schwarzeneggers,” Pucek said of his first crop, a set of uniformly muscular fish he raised during his first and only season in the summer of 1991.

By October, he said, they had sold more than a million pounds of fish to various restaurants. If they had ramped up to full production, he estimates it could have produced 20 to 25 million pounds of fish per year.

“It was a real deal, unlike what they wanted to say in the papers,” Pucek said. “It could have been one of the biggest economic generators on the South Side.”

But not long after water officials learned how much Pucek’s well was producing, they started trying to shut him down. The huge water usage, for many people, simply wasn’t acceptable.

Effects on the aquifer

In those days, San Antonio’s only source of water was the Edwards Aquifer. The limestone rock layer stretches from Kinney County to north of Austin and holds vast quantities of water. Some of this water flows up to the surface in sparkling springs, like those that form the headwaters of rivers like the Comal and San Marcos.

Conflicts over the aquifer had long been broiling in the region, especially since Texas’ historic drought of the 1950s. The aquifer’s vast size but limited volume led to fighting among urban San Antonio, farmers in Uvalde and Medina counties, and the spring communities of New Braunfels and San Marcos.

For years, repeated attempts to find an alternate source of water for San Antonio failed. The San Antonio City Council voted down a deal to buy water from Canyon Lake in 1976, and a public vote in 1991 killed the Applewhite project that would have created a reservoir south of the city.

Pucek’s well added a sense of urgency to the water situation. After it started producing, water officials immediately noticed a steady drop in aquifer levels, SAWS Chief Operating Officer Steve Clouse said.

“You could just see a daily drop, whereas you normally saw fluctuations in the Edwards on a day-to-day basis, like we see today,” Clouse said.

Despite the massive amount of water going to one property, it didn’t take long for lawyers to conclude that Pucek’s well was perfectly legal under a principle known as the rule of capture.

A holdover from English common law, the rule of capture is also known in water circles as the “law of the biggest straw.” It shields landowners from liability from pumping the water below their land, regardless of how it affects their neighbors’ wells.

Pucek’s use of water qualified as a “beneficial use,” meaning it was fair game, said Greg Ellis, a water attorney who represents groundwater districts around the state. Under the rule of capture, authorities can only stop waste, malicious behavior, or pumping that negligently causes the land to sink, Ellis said.

“There was nothing they could do to stop the pumping based on the impact to the Edwards Aquifer,” Ellis said.

For much of the 20th century, this legal principle worked in San Antonio’s favor. For the city to grow, a developer or utility simply had to stick a new straw into a different part of the aquifer, and a spiderweb of neighborhoods and businesses would weave itself around the well.

“San Antonio basically always took my opinion that [groundwater is] a property right,” Pucek said. “Then when I got my property right, they wanted to take it away from me.”

Water fights of 1991

That kind of uncontrolled pumping was having drastic effects on the springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. In May 1991, only two months after Pucek’s well came in, the Sierra Club sued in federal court to stop the pumping under the Endangered Species Act.

In the lawsuit, the environmental group argued that overpumping of the Edwards was threatening endangered salamanders, fish, and other species that depend on aquifer-fed springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. The lawsuit later expanded to include San Antonio and other entities.

SAWS President & CEO Robert Puente gives a presentation in front of City Council B Session.
SAWS President & CEO Robert Puente. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The lawsuit was truly the “federal hammer” that threatened to smash San Antonio’s growth, as SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente put it. A federal judge, Senior U.S. Judge Lucius D. Bunton III, ruled in the Sierra Club’s favor in 1993, spurring Texas to enact regulations to protect the aquifer.

But because the lawsuit focused on obscure critters that few people ever see, it wasn’t as effective at galvanizing action as Pucek’s catfish farm well.

“The catfish farm got it into a very visual way of seeing what the problem was,” said Puente, a former state representative who won his first election to the Texas House in 1990. “That helped tremendously to let our community know that we needed to do something. We needed to agree to some regulations.”

San Antonio’s business leaders began meeting regularly to discuss the aquifer, Puente said.

“It was a tremendous effort,” he said. “You’re talking about what was on the city’s agenda at the time, it was water. We had to resolve this water issue or San Antonio would really suffer dire consequences.”

From Pucek’s point of view, San Antonio officials and the news media unfairly made him the face of water greed.

“Every time they needed something to rile up somebody, they showed that picture of [the well] squirting 30 feet in the air,” he said.

Though Puente didn’t win election on a water platform, he said local business mogul Red McCombs told him during a fundraiser that as a South Sider, he would be well-suited to help solve the city’s water issues.

“The community [was] lucky to have someone from the South Side advocating all of these water interests, because it gets colored into a North Side-South Side fight,” Puente said. “That did give the community some assurance that what we were doing, what I was doing, was for the betterment of the entire community.”

During a special session of the Texas Legislature that summer, Puente tried to pass legislation that would have shut down Pucek’s well.

It didn’t work at first. At the time, the power of the Legislature was even more concentrated in rural Texas than it is today, Puente said. Many legislators didn’t appreciate the freshman House member’s attempt to influence water use on private land.

“I walked into a buzz saw,” Puente said.  “I didn’t hit the century club, which is 100 votes against you, but it was a very lopsided vote.”

Puente did succeed in passing legislation to regulate future wells like Pucek’s, and it helped launch him into a political career centered around water. He later became chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, before becoming the head of SAWS in 2008.

“At least it was a half of a victory,” Puente said. “But the overall attempt to shut the well down did not prevail.”

Later in 1991, water authorities did manage to shut down Pucek’s farm, citing him for not having a proper permit to discharge water containing fish waste into the Medina River.

Pucek said he had always wanted San Antonio to be able to use his water after he’d finished with it and discharged it into the Medina River. He also thought it would help get more water to the Texas Gulf Coast, where it was also sorely needed.

“At the time, the politics just wasn’t going to allow it,” he said.

The final chapter

Faced with the looming Sierra Club lawsuit and the likelihood of other fights like that over the catfish farm, the Texas Legislature did finally pass regulations to better manage the Edwards Aquifer.

In 1993, it passed the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act, which created the elected body that now oversees pumping limits on the aquifer during droughts.

The authority has allocated a finite amount of water rights to pump the aquifer, and those rights are now bought and sold in the San Antonio region as a fungible commodity. Those rights were worth between $118 and $130 per acre-foot as of earlier this year, according to SAWS officials.

Ellis, the water lawyer who became the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s first general manager, said regulations would have likely come even without Pucek’s well. But the well did serve as an example of what can happen if the rule of capture is taken to an extreme.

“The rule of capture is alive and well and still the law, but … inside the [Edwards Aquifer Authority], there are limitations on what you can do so that you don’t cause harm to your neighbor and the environment,” Ellis said.

The creation of SAWS in 1992 also helped San Antonio expand its access to water outside the Edwards. SAWS now taps every major lake, river, and aquifer in the region. Thanks to its conservation efforts, it also provides less water per person than it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Thousands upon thousands of bags of gravel sit waiting to be utilized in the plugging of the catfish farm well.
Bags of gravel to be used in the plugging of the catfish farm well line the property. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

After the settlement that paid Pucek for his water rights, he never got back into agriculture. He now lives in the Hill Country “getting old, taking it easy,” he said.

His only regret, he said, is not being able to have his catfish farm.

“I wish I would have got to do my project,” Pucek said. “I really do. It would have been fun and great for everybody.”

One final chapter remains in the saga of the catfish farm: its transformation into a park. San Antonio River Authority officials have renamed it Mann’s Crossing Park and are working on developing a master plan and securing funding, River Authority spokesperson Yviand Serbones-Hernandez said.

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