Olmos Park has seen an uptick in residents drilling their own wells into underground aquifers in an effort to avoid high water bills and restrictions on watering during droughts, officials say.

Some residents in the wealthy municipality north of downtown San Antonio are tired of what they see as high water bills from the San Antonio Water System, Olmos Park Councilwoman Sharon Plant said at a Sept. 16 City Council meeting.

Plant said council members had received a letter from a resident concerned about the well drilling, because it allows people to access water free of charge and bypass watering restrictions that thousands of other Bexar County residents have to follow.

“Well, you know what, that’s the whole reason people are doing this,” Plant said. “The resident that I spoke with expressed to me [that] several of the residents that drilled wells were receiving $2,000-a-month bills.”

Plant added that she herself had received a $1,100 bill earlier in the summer from SAWS after her sprinkler system ran on an automatic setting for two weeks while she was hospitalized in Corpus Christi.

“My husband and I were not home – no showers, no dishwashers, no washing – and it’s only he and I,” Plant said. “That is just ridiculous.”

Olmos Park Councilwoman Sharon Plant. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A database of well reports from the Texas Water Development Board shows 13 private wells for domestic use and irrigation within the bounds of Olmos Park, which in 2017 had about 2,000 residents and a median property value of $675,600. Of those wells, six were drilled in 2020.

Roger Andrade, the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s groundwater protection manager, cited 23 known private wells in Olmos Park. He said the EAA is waiting on well reports from six newly drilled wells.

With many residents maintaining large lawns and extensive landscaping, Olmos Park frequently has some of the highest per-person water use in the county, according to SAWS records. Olmos Park residents, like most in Bexar County, receive water service from SAWS, which has raised its customers’ rates every year since at least 2011.

In San Antonio, City ordinances prohibiting residents from drilling their own wells without a permit. But Olmos Park has no such rule.

Marc Friberg, the EAA’s director of external and regulatory affairs, said the private well drilling “is not really outside of what goes on in the other smaller landlocked cities around here that don’t have the same ordinance the City of San Antonio does.”

At the Sept. 16 meeting, Olmos Park council members discussed whether to pass new regulations on private well drilling. Councilwoman Deanna Rickabaugh called a prohibition on private wells a “nonstarter.”

“That’s not something we can do or want to do,” said Rickabaugh.

During the meeting, council members approved a motion to ask city staff to develop ordinances to confirm that drilling companies that bore private wells in Olmos Park are properly licensed and bonded and that the drilling protects city streets and other property.

“A couple” of those drilling wells are tapping into the Edwards Aquifer, which subjects them to regulations from the EAA, Friberg said, adding that he didn’t know the exact number. That means they are required to obtain water rights and well permits from the EAA, which regulates pumping of the main water source for more than 2 million people in the San Antonio area.

“They’re going through the process to get the appropriate permits,” Friberg said.

In Olmos Park, the Edwards Aquifer lies approximately 180 to 320 feet underground, Andrade said.

However, according to EAA officials, many of the residents drilling wells are targeting shallow groundwater sources that have no restrictions on water use. These include the Austin Chalk and the Buda Limestone, water-bearing rock layers above the Edwards Aquifer.

Mark Hamilton, the EAA’s director of aquifer management, said aquifer scientists aren’t sure exactly how pumping shallow aquifers might affect the underlying Edwards or the water that flows into it.

“It’s one of those cases where I don’t have enough specific data,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know the exact impact on the Edwards, but to some degree, there may be some hydrologic connection there. I just don’t know at what level.”

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