In 2013, Owens Lake was the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. Photo taken on Aug. 26 courtesy of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which monitors daily dust pollution.

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The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has been trying to import groundwater from the Simsboro Aquifer — part of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer — in Milam County since 1998.

They are now on the verge of accomplishing that goal if the SAWS-Vista Ridge Consortium groundwater deal is approved by SAWS and the San Antonio City Council.

The Vista Ridge Consortium is a partnership between Spain-based Abengoa and Austin-based Blue Water Systems.

142 Miles of pipeline will transport water from  Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.
142 miles of pipeline will transport water from
Burleson County to San Antonio. Image courtesy of SAWS.

Before deciding to pursue the current groundwater deal, San Antonio may have studied how Los Angeles solved its water problems. The parallels are eye-opening.

In the early 1900s, Los Angeles constructed an aqueduct — an above-ground pipeline — to import water from rural Owens Valley, more than 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

In 2014, San Antonio is attempting to construct a pipeline to import water from rural Burleson County, 143 miles north of San Antonio.

Both of the rural areas are similar in size – about 1,000 square miles.

I do not want to see Burleson County become like the now-barren Owens Valley, which experiences frequent dust storms (see top photo).

If the Post Oak Savannah Groundwater Conservation District had been fulfilling its mission of “protecting and conserving the aquifers” in Milam and Burleson County, I wouldn’t be writing this note.

Let me explain.

All groundwater districts in Texas go through a five-year process to develop “desired future conditions (DFC).”  Just as the name suggests, the DFC is what the groundwater district desires an aquifer’s condition to be in 60 years.

For the Simsboro Aquifer in Burleson County, the groundwater source for the SAWS deal, the DFC is an average 300-foot drawdown of water-well levels. Near the well fields, 600-foot drawdowns will occur – and at least a 100-foot drawdown will impact more than 2,000 square miles.

Similar drawdowns were predicted for a failed 1998 SAWS deal to import 50,000 acre-feet per year of Simsboro groundwater from Alcoa land in Lee County.  Those predicted drawdowns prompted a Bastrop County water supply corporation executive to say in an interview reported in the July 2004 edition of Dollars & Sense: “If you went down to San Antonio and the Edwards Aquifer and said I’m gonna draw down 100 feet over 1,400 square miles, those people would be coming to your funeral, because someone would hang you.”

In our case, our very own groundwater district thought those drawdowns were acceptable.

The DFCs are used by the Texas Water Development Board to determine the amount of groundwater that can be pumped so that the DFC is reached in 60 years – this number is called the MAG (modeled available groundwater).

In the case of the Burleson County Simsboro Aquifer, the MAG is about 48,000 acre-feet per year.

The SAWS/Vista Ridge deal is about equal to the MAG: 50,000 acre-feet (16,000,000,000 gallons) of Simsboro groundwater will be exported to San Antonio each year.

But our groundwater district has approved permits for much more Simsboro groundwater pumping than the MAG (see graph: the total permitted includes the SAWS/Vista Ridge 50,000 acre-feet per year.)

NOTE:  Permit data from records obtained through Open Records requests.
Permit data from records obtained through Open Records requests submitted by Curtis Chubb.

If groundwater pumping is greater than the MAG, the water-level declines will exceed the DFC and the aquifer will be depleted at a faster rate.

Now, let’s talk about one more aspect of the Simsboro Aquifer which has a lot to do with its sustainability – its recharge rate.

A simple but extremely critical rule is that an aquifer will be depleted if you pump more groundwater than the amount recharged by rain falling on the parts of the aquifer in contact with the land surface, also known as the outcrop. Just as your bank account will be depleted if you withdraw more money than you deposit.

According to University of Texas reports, the total recharge for the Simsboro in Burleson County is less than 12,000 acre-feet per year (see graph above). If the normal amount of groundwater is discharged to springs and rivers, only about 2,000 acre-feet per year of recharge will reach the aquifer’s storage areas.

Anyone can conclude from the previous facts that the Simsboro Aquifer in Burleson County cannot be sustained if 50,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater is exported to San Antonio.

But there are other cities and water marketers that contribute to the veritable siege of the Simsboro, which underlies 11 counties and is managed by five groundwater districts (all with different rules.)

Some of the largest planned pumpers of Simsboro groundwater are water marketer Forestar (45,000 acre-feet per year – Bastrop County;) water marketer End Op (56,000 acre-feet per year – Lee and Bastrop Counties;) water marketer Blue Water Systems (21,000 acre-feet per year – Burleson County – not dedicated to the SAWS deal;) cities of Bryan and College Station (pumping permits for 70,000 acre-feet per year – Brazos County,) and Alcoa (45,000 acre-feet per year of pumping permits – Milam County.)

There can be no question that if all or even most of the permitted and planned pumping occurs, the Simsboro will be depleted rapidly.

All I can hope for is that every person, city, and water-marketer wanting to use Simsboro groundwater will accept the responsibility for protecting and conserving the Simsboro for future generations.

If they don’t, the Simsboro Aquifer will suffer the same fate as the dying Ogallala Aquifer.

*Featured/top image: In 2013, Owens Lake was the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. Photo taken on Aug. 26 courtesy of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, which monitors daily dust pollution.

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San Antonio’s Water Future: Who is Running SAWS? 

Councilman Nirenberg on San Antonio’s Environmental Resiliency

Conference Tackles Climate Change in San Antonio: No Longer ‘If,’ Now ‘When’

Documentary Showcases San Antonio’s ‘Green Solutions’ to ‘Water Blues’

 Conversation: SAWS Abandons Pipes, Redirects Focus to Desalination Plant

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Curtis Chubb

Curtis Chubb is a Milam County landowner, and holds a doctorate from The Johns Hopkins University. He's been a groundwater journalist for 20 years.