By Ken Kramer, Director, Lone Star Chapter, Sierra Club
Management of the Edwards Aquifer has been a complex and contentious issue for years. Most of us who are veterans of the “water wars” of the early 1990s still have scars from the battles in court and in the Texas Legislature that were fought over aquifer pumping, springflows, endangered and threatened species, and base flows for the Guadalupe River.
In retrospect a number of good things happened as a result of the turmoil of those years. The litigation by the Sierra Club over concerns about the impacts of aquifer pumping on Comal and San Marcos Springs, important habitat for several endangered and threatened species, served as a “wake-up call” for the Edwards region.
The San Antonio Water System redoubled its conservation efforts, and San Antonio is now recognized as a leader in water conservation among the state’s major cities. Agricultural producers in the western part of the region began moving toward more efficient irrigation practices. The Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) was created and began implementing a permitting system for regulating water withdrawals from the aquifer. Some Edwards pumpers diversified their sources of water.
All has not been perfect, of course, but conservation, supplemental water supplies, and management practices – along with some well-timed rainfall – have combined to avoid a major crisis with the aquifer in recent years as all of us continue to grapple with how best to assure protection of the aquifer and maintenance of springflows over the long term.
There has remained, of course, a smoldering issue that results from an inconsistency in the law that created the EAA. That law, Senate Bill 1477, called for a cap on pumping from the Aquifer at 450,000 acre-feet a year – ratcheted down to 400,000 acre-feet a year by the end of 2007– but it set up criteria for the EAA to issue aquifer pumping permits that could result in as much as 549,000 acre-feet of water withdrawals from the aquifer each year. That inconsistency complicates the other requirement in the law that EAA prepare and implement a plan to provide continuous minimum springflows to preserve endangered species habitats by 2012. Now that the permitting process is virtually complete and the deadline for reaching the 400,000 acre-foot cap is less than a year away, this inconsistency must be addressed.
SB 1477 does authorize EAA to take actions to deal with this inconsistency, including a proportionate reduction of all permits in order to meet the cap on pumping and/or acquisition and retirement of specific pumping rights (which would require compensation). The EAA is also authorized to raise the cap on pumping but only after a determination by its Board that “additional supplies are available from the aquifer, and only after “consultation with appropriate state and federal agencies.”
Now, however, the EAA – with the support of SAWS and many San Antonio officials – has apparently decided to pursue legislation in this session of the Texas Legislature to raise the pumping cap to the permitted amount of 549,000 acre-feet per year without any finding that doing so is scientifically valid. Indeed the fact that the EAA Board is seeking this legislative “fix” rather than taking such action in the manner authorized in its enabling law is a tacit admission that such a cap increase is not scientifically justified.
The EAA has dismissed the alternatives to raising the cap – apparently on the assumption that proportional reduction of permits across-the-board is too politically volatile and that acquisition of specific permits would be too costly. In truth, however, EAA has produced no in-depth analysis of these two alternatives to allow the public to have a frank and open discussion on these options.
That’s unfortunate, because raising the cap on Edwards pumping – in the absence of any scientific justification that it can be done without harming springflows – solves nothing.
Indeed raising the cap poses many potential problems – most prominent among them the prospect that the Edwards region is more likely to be put into a critical management period quicker and more often if actual pumping increases to 549,000 acre-feet per year on a regular basis. That higher level of pumping will take away almost any margin of safety that otherwise might allow the aquifer to “weather” short periods of drought without the EAA having to impose stringent critical period management reductions.
Moreover, springflows are likely to be reduced on an ongoing basis by an increase in this magnitude of pumping. That has serious implications for maintaining robust habitats for endangered and threatened species, instream flows in the Guadalupe River for downstream interests, and freshwater inflows to the San Antonio Bay system.
Perhaps the biggest negative of the Legislature raising the cap without scientific justification, however, is that it would reflect a return to the “us” versus “them” approach to the Edwards that so many people have been trying to escape. It pits pumpers from the Edwards against almost everyone else – the communities at the springs, the downstream interests, environmental groups, and others – and it puts the interests of those pumpers above the interests of everyone else.
There was a time for fighting over the Edwards. What is needed now, however, is progress toward a scientifically-based management system for the Edwards that will balance all the competing interests for water from the aquifer – one that is the result of an active and open dialogue among those interests. Some possibilities in that regard are emerging, but a rush for a legislatively imposed increase in the Edwards pumping cap at this time will undermine or torpedo those possibilities and may well throw us all back into a battle that no one really wants to fight again. It’s time to move forward, not backward.