Kathleen Tobin Krueger stood on a low cliff last week, looking down on her family’s ranchland.

Below her lay an expansive field laden with smooth white rocks, trees with exposed roots growing between them.

There should be a full, flowing river here — there usually is a full, flowing river here — the Medina River. Krueger stepped back from the cliff’s edge shaking her head, looking distressed.

“In my whole life, I’ve never seen it like this,” Krueger said. Her family has owned the 700-acre Tobin Ranch in Bandera County for 75 years.

“It’s not even a mud puddle; usually it’s clear, flowing with water and lush beautiful green banks. Now it’s just white stones, laying there like bleached bones.” The former New Braunfels councilwoman and wife of the late U.S. Sen. Robert “Bob” Krueger shook her head again.

Krueger worries about the wildlife. Where are the deer and the birds getting water? She worries about their cattle. Fresh grass and clean water are getting more difficult for them to find.

Krueger and the Tobin family aren’t alone in their concerns.

Kathleen Tobin Krueger drives with her brother, Patrick, through the dry riverbed of the Medina River near Bandera on Saturday.
Kathleen Tobin Krueger drives with her brother Patrick Tobin through the dry riverbed of the Medina River near Bandera. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Across Central Texas, families that depend on private wells are finding they’ve dried up — some for the first time. Ranchers are struggling to tend to water-dependent crops and to animals that can drink thousands of gallons of water a week.

While residents within San Antonio city limits who depend on the San Antonio Water System have been able to live life pretty normally this summer due to SAWS’ water diversification efforts, those living in rural areas in and around Bexar County are growing increasingly worried by the severity of the ongoing drought.

Water security has long been an issue of concern for Texas, but as the state population continues to explode, droughts are becoming more intense than they have been in previous years, experts say.

And while one of Central Texas’ main sources of water, the Edwards Aquifer, is protected and regulated by the Edwards Aquifer Authority, other important water sources in the region are not, or are only protected at the individual county level, despite spanning multiple counties.

Calls to safeguard the Trinity Aquifer with similar protections that the Edwards enjoys have taken on increased urgency, as wells and tanks in the Hill Country run dry.

“[The Trinity Aquifer is] just more complicated, much more complicated, and there’s no authority for it like the Edwards Aquifer Authority that’s come through and really figured it out,” said Jack Oliver, a local geologist, cave researcher and a board member of Preserve Our Hill Country Environment.

Wildlife are struggling

Krueger and brother Patrick Tobin have never been able to drive their ranch all-terrain vehicle straight up the riverbed as they can now.

During a recent outing, the pair stopped to get out and look around. As they stood on the cracked dry clay that normally forms the Medina River riverbed, they were dwarfed by several of the oaks and ash trees on the river’s edge.

Fish bones littered the ground like confetti at some bizarre party; dozens of skulls and spines still intact lay next to each other in what must have very recently been a shallow pool of water.

Fish carcasses remain scattered about the dry riverbed of the Medina River near Bandera on Saturday.
Fish carcasses remain scattered about the dry riverbed of the Medina River near Bandera. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Another quarter mile down, buzzards lined the side of the river bank next to one such remaining pool. The small oasis was green and cloudy. Frogs flitted about everywhere along the stagnant water’s edge.

Usually, the deer, birds and fish have plenty of clean flowing water to drink and swim in the Medina River, Krueger said. She’s worried particularly for the endangered bird species that pass through their ranch annually.

Krueger has good reason to be — extreme drought can be particularly difficult on Texas wildlife, said Kelly Simon, an urban wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

While much of Texas wildlife has evolved to survive drought, aspects that make modern drought particularly stressful on native Texas animals include human population growth and development, and the moving in of competitor species, such as axis deer, which compete with white tails, and red fire ants, which compete with native pollinators like bees, Simon said.

“We used to say that wild types of Texas wildlife and plants are used to extremes; it’s kind of what makes Texas Texas,” Simon said. “Unfortunately, these days, it seems like the extremes are becoming normal — and so wildlife are experiencing a really difficult time.”

The hay and the herd

As Tobin skirted around the edge of the ranch, a nearby black cow started walking toward him and Krueger.

“She probably thinks we have some food on us,” Tobin said as he passed her. The Tobins keep about 30 cattle and 25 calves on the ranch, Tobin said. Keeping them fed and watered has been an ordeal this summer, he said.

The drought has caused lower hay yields than in previous years, Tobin said, making it more expensive to feed their herds.

The scarcity of hay this year is also due to inflation, said Cooper Little, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas. While drought is nothing new for Texas farmers, Little said many ranchers were unable to buy good fertilizer this year due to its high cost. That resulted in less hay being grown and harvested just as the drought hit, he said.

“Probably the main thing making this worse is that it was the perfect storm,” Little said.
“Folks who could have hayed this year couldn’t fertilize their pastures and decided not to hay. That coincidentally fell on a year we went into drought.”

Dry farmland in southern Bexar County can be seen as hay yields dwindle and prices inflate.
Dry farmland in southern Bexar County can be seen as hay yields dwindle and prices rise. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While Tobin Ranch has been able to produce enough water for its cattle so far, Tobin said some of their neighbors have been less lucky. He and Krueger have heard of neighbors whose stock tanks and wells have run dry, he said.

Folks across the South have been selling off their cattle because they’ve become too expensive to maintain, he said. That, in turn, has oversaturated the market.

More straws in the same cup

It’s not just farmers and ranchers struggling to draw water from their wells.

Residents of northern Bexar County, Comal County and surrounding rural areas have taken to social media to talk about their private wells running dry.

Oliver said Hill Country residents have been reaching out to him in recent weeks asking how they can get water trucked out to their rural homes because their wells have run dry.

Oliver lives in Comal County, where for the first time since 2014 — the tail end of the last major drought — parts of the Comal Springs have gone dry. Last weekend, the Edwards Aquifer Authority declared Stage 4 pumping restrictions for its permit holders due to concern for the springs, which provide habitat for threatened and endangered species protected under the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan.

Bryant Harris, owner of Triple H2O, a bulk potable water delivery business out of Canyon Lake, has been working 12- to 14-hour days getting water to rural customers.

Harris said he’s getting calls from residents who have lived on their land for 20 years and never had their wells run this dry.

While the drought of 2011 was an equally busy season for Harris, he said this year’s drought started earlier and has been marked by hotter weather — this summer has seen roughly 60 days in triple digits.

What’s making this drought particularly difficult, he said, is the amount of growth the area has experienced: “There’s just so many more straws in the same cup.”

Protecting the Trinity

In the past, drought has acted as a catalyst in the protection of Central Texas groundwater. The creation of the Edwards Aquifer Authority can be traced to the 1950s drought of record, which didn’t end until 1957.

In 1959, the Edwards Underground Water District was created to “conserve, preserve and protect” the Edwards Aquifer; however, it wasn’t given regulatory powers.

In 1991, the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for failing to protect species covered by the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit sought to require the federal agency to ensure minimum spring flows from the Edwards Aquifer to the Comal and San Marcos springs to protect endangered species living there.

In 1993, a U.S. district judge ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, ordering that spring flows must be maintained. Born out of this ruling, the EAA officially launched operations in 1996.

Now, environmental advocates and land owners in Central Texas are calling on state officials to add more protections to other aquifers, such as the Trinity.

The major aquifers of Texas
The Trinity Aquifer, which serves much of the Hill Country, stretches all the way to North Texas. Unlike the Edwards Aquifer, it enjoys no special protections. Some Hill Country residents would like to change that. Credit: Courtesy / Texas Water Development Board

Preserve Our Hill Country Environment and Friends of Dry Comal Creek are seeking to get residents out in numbers to the Comal Trinity Groundwater Conservation District’s Sept. 19 board meeting to urge greater protections for the Trinity. A social media post by Preserve Our Hill Country Environment notes that drilling into the Trinity by developers and quarries is further endangering the aquifer’s security.

There is definitely a need to further protect the Trinity Aquifer, Oliver said, in part because it produces at a lower rate and takes longer to recharge than the Edwards. Landowners reliant on wells that are now drying up sit over the Trinity Aquifer.

A Trinity Aquifer Authority, structured like the Edwards, would help as the region continues to grow and as climate change makes weather patterns and droughts more severe, Oliver said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...