Only two months ago, Texas residents were still watching snow melt from a historic winter freeze. But with little moisture over the past several weeks, drought conditions are now spreading across the state.

For the first time since 2018, San Antonio officials on Tuesday declared Stage 2 drought restrictions that only allow watering outdoors once per week between 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. San Antonio has received only 3.15 inches of rain so far this year, less than half of the normal amount of just over 7 inches, according to National Weather Service records.

The cutbacks come with nearly the whole state in some stage of drought, with the most severe in South and West Texas. In the Trans-Pecos region, firefighters have battled all week to mostly contain a wildfire that’s burned 1,300 acres in Big Bend National Park.

“There are parts of far West Texas into the Big Bend region and then southwest of San Antonio that have not really received much rainfall,” said Luke Kanclerz, a fire analyst with Texas A&M Forest Service. “Those areas are observing extreme to exceptional drought, and really that dates back to last year.”

Texas has seen many droughts in the past. Dry weather would have to linger for months in order to rival other severe droughts, including the most recent in 2010-2015.

“We are still going to have beautiful landscapes, even if it gets dry this summer,” said Karen Guz, San Antonio Water System’s senior conservation director. “We have seen much drier periods than what we’re going through today.”

Under San Antonio’s Stage 2 watering rules, residents can only use irrigation systems, sprinklers, or soaker hoses one day per week. Guz recommends those with irrigation timers to set them to only water during the 7-11 a.m. and p.m. hours.

“Almost no homeowner needs more time than that to water their lawn thoroughly,” Guz said.

Watering days are determined by the last number of residents’ address:

  • 0 or 1 – Monday
  • 2 or 3 – Tuesday
  • 4 or 5 – Wednesday
  • 6 or 7 – Thursday
  • 8 or 9 – Friday
  • No watering on the weekends.

Watering with a handheld hose or can is allowed any time of day. See SAWS’ website for more details on what kind of watering is allowed and when.

Residents who violate the water ordinances can get slapped with citation letters from SAWS employees and police officers working for SAWS. They can be summoned to appear in the City’s specialty environmental court, where a judge can order them to pay a fine or serve probation.

Guz said SAWS issues alerts first and focuses its citations on repeat water offenders.

“If they don’t stop we’ll let them know that, ‘OK now a San Antonio police officer who works part-time for SAWS may have to monitor your site and you might get a citation, so please stop,’” Guz told reporters in an April 15 drought briefing.

For most residents, rules on sprinkler use are the first signs that drought has returned. Local ordinances require the City, in consultation with SAWS, to declare water restrictions when the level of the Edwards Aquifer below San Antonio reaches certain thresholds.

For Stage 1 restrictions, that threshold is 660 feet above sea level, as measured by the J-17 well that measures the aquifer below Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. For Stage 2 restrictions, the threshold is 650 feet.

At just below 649 feet as of Tuesday, the Edwards Aquifer is at its lowest level since September 2018, following a bone-dry July and August that year. This year, San Antonio has received 3.89 inches less rain than average, looking back at a 30-year period from 1991 to 2020.

San Antonio’s drought ordinance also contemplates a Stage 3, when watering is only allowed every other week. It’s never been used before. The City can declare Stage 3 when the aquifer reaches 640 feet or below, but unlike stages 1 and 2, it doesn’t automatically take effect.

Over the past 20 years, SAWS has tapped into an increasingly broad set of water supplies, and the utility now receives water from every major river, reservoir, and aquifer in the region. Flush with so much water, the utility hasn’t needed to push for drought restrictions, even when the Edwards level has been at 640 feet or below for months on end, as happened during the 2010-2015 drought.

“It’s never been necessary before, and we don’t foresee a scenario when that would be the case this summer,” Guz said.

But that doesn’t mean the aquifer couldn’t dip to 640 feet or below this summer. Paul Bertetti, director of aquifer science with the Edwards Aquifer Authority, said in a forecast at the authority’s April 13 board meeting that the aquifer could reach those levels if rain doesn’t improve.

“If we don’t get substantial rainfall or even if we get normal rainfall, it’s very likely we will come close to [640 feet], perhaps as early as June this year,” Bertetti said.

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