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Major 1950s type of drought would dry up Barton Springs

Tuesday, May 30, 2000 by

Pumping from aquifer would have to stop to maintain flow in the springs

If Texas experiences a drought as severe as the drought of the 1950s, Barton Springs could go dry unless pumpage from the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer just south of Austin were halted. This information comes from a draft report by the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, commissioned by the Lower Colorado River Authority on behalf of the water planning group for this region, known as Region K.

As the study notes, the aquifer is "the sole source of water to about 45,000 residents" of Hays and Travis Counties. The Barton Springs Salamander, an endangered species, lives only in a region close to the spring.

Stovy Bowlin, general manager of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD), is a member of the Region K group. "Region K is to determine supply, determine demand and determine management strategies to meet the demand," Bowlin said. "In the future there will have to be some very tough decisions (made)," Bowlin said. Those decisions will include whether to establish a cap on pumpage from the area's wells. "Our responsibility is to try to balance spring flow with pumpage," he said. Bowlin said the Region K group voted to base water availability projections on maintaining at least minimum spring flow.

Craig Smith, president of the BSEACD board, said the study's authors "tried to come up with a pattern that would fit the actual past reality." Using the district's growth projections, Smith said, means a 230 percent to 250 percent increase in pumpage between now and 2050. Smith told In Fact Daily, "Projecting forward based on past occurrences, and increased usage, what would that do to water levels and springs flows?" If there were three years of average rainfall and then a seven-year drought, what would happen? "And the answer is the springs go dry."

According to the study, with projected growth, the springs would go dry in 2046, or during the third year of a seven-year drought. Smith notes, "If pumping were somehow magically frozen at today's pumping level of 5,000 acre feet a year, then they (the springs) would still go dry at the end of that time," or in 2050. Smith said, "The only projection where they don't go dry is no pumping at all. And in that case, the projected levels would be approximating the low flow conditions of 1956–the end of the great drought–and the minimum flow that's ever been recorded there," at the springs.

The main author of the report, which may be released in its final version this week, is Bridget Scanlon. Scanlon holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and is an expert in karst hydrology. In addition to Scanlon, the study's authors include Robert E. Mace of the Texas Water Development Board, Alan R. Dutton and Robert Reedy. Scanlon told In Fact Daily that the study's conclusions would not differ significantly from those in the draft.

Asked about the applicability of this study to say, 2001 to 2011, Scanlon said, "The estimations we did here from 2041 to 2050, that could be 2001 to 2011, if we had changed the pumpage some." She said if we had a drought similar to the 1950s, the springs would run dry at the end of seven years with the current level of pumpage.

BSEACD senior hydrologist Nico Hauwert told In Fact Daily, "In the '50s we got down to 10 cfs (cubic feet per second). In 1997 we got down to 17 cfs. This year, he said, "we went down to 27 for a while and went up to 40 with the rain. The average is 53 cfs longterm. On May 2 it was 55 cfs, which is close to the average."

Jon Beall, president of the Save Barton Creek Association, said, "It's a serious problem with no easy solution and we need to start factoring that information into our decision-making process. The implications are if we're going to conserve that resource, we've got to do something." Beall said the new information makes the application by T.J. Higginbotham to drill a commercial well and pump 50 million gallons of aquifer water per year, "more ludicrous. Not only that, but it indicates the need for strong action to reduce the amount of pumpage. As far as how we do that, I have my opinions, but it's not for me to say."

On May 2, the board of the BSEACD voted to grant Higginbotham a permit to drill the well on his property west of Buda. After tests have been done, Higginbotham will have to come back to the board for permission to pump. Smith and Director Jack Goodman voted "no" on granting the application. Two new board members have been elected since that vote. One of those new directors, Jim Camp, has voiced strong support for conservation measures in the past.

Human health and safety higher priority than salamander during drought

But salamander prevails over crop irrigation, car washes, and golf courses

David Frederick, Austin field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in case of a severe drought, "I will put human health and safety in front of everything. But until we get there, the salamander is paramount." It is Frederick's job to try to ensure the health of the Barton Springs Salamander, an endangered species that lives only at Barton Springs.

Frederick said, "When it comes to human health and safety, the salamander has to take a back seat." Frederick defined human health and safety as "keeping houses with water…keeping fire hoses filled (and) hospitals running…That does not mean irrigation for crops, car washes, golf courses, etc."

Frederick said he has suggested to Hays County officials "for almost 18 months now" that they need a regional plan. "There's nothing wrong with development–its where you put it," he said. "I think Hays County is trying," Frederick said. "They're trying to set up their water district and sewers. But we need a regional plan, almost a regional growth plan."

Frederick said, "A lot of folks on both sides of this issue want to use (the federal Endangered Species Act) as a land-use plan. That's never been its goal. However, by default in some cases that's what it comes to because there is no authority, or limited authority for the counties to plan their own destinies. However, if everybody could get together–federal, state, state Legislature, and everybody else–a regional plan could be formed. You could plan out 20 to 50 years."

Aquifer district's first retreat does not address issues concerning water

Discussion focuses on disagreements among staff and general manager

The retreat last Friday for the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board members and staff brought out a number of organizational problems and some genuine disagreements between General Manager Stovy Bowlin and district employees. The daylong retreat was the first of its kind for the district.

One employee said he did not feel he could speak freely in front of two members of the press who attended. The board agreed to meet in executive session on June 13, with Bowlin, the district's senior hydrologist Nico Hauwert, and a facilitator.

Craig Smith, the new board president, had drawn up a list of substantive issues he hoped the group would address. However, the group did not get around to discussing those concerns, including preparing for drought by working with surface water providers and federal, state and local governments to find ways to enhance recharge of the Edwards Aquifer.

Hays road plan…In the wake of the lawsuit filed by the Hays County Water Planning Partnership over allegations the 2025 Transportation Plan had been improperly modified in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the Hays County Commissioners Court posted an addendum to its agenda to discuss the plan and hold an executive session regarding the lawsuit. (See In Fact Daily May 26, 2000.) The meeting starts at 9 a.m. today in the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos… Lots of fund-raisers… City Council candidate Raul Alvarez will hold a fund-raiser Wednesday, May 31, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Threadgill's World Headquarters, 301 Riverside Drive. Guy Forsyth will provide musical entertainment… Rafael Quintanilla, who faces Alvarez in Saturday's runoff election, will host a party to get out the vote Thursday, June 1, at Jalisco Restaurant and Bar, 414 Barton Springs Road, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m…Also Thursday 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Hispanic Contractors' Association, Frank Fuentes, and Senator Gonzalo Barrientos and his wife, Emma Barrientos, are hosting a fund-raiser for Judge Gisela Triana at Miguel's La Bodega, 415 Colorado. (Watch out for those newly changed one-way streets downtown!) Triana is judge of Travis County Court-at-Law No. 5. She will face Republican Grant Goodwin in November… Good-bye to Bill blast…If you're still in the mood for a party, Friday, June 2, from 5 to 8 p.m. friends and supporters of outgoing Council Member Bill Spelman will celebrate his term on the council at Fado Irish Pub, 214 W. 4th St.

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