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Board passes new rules to better protect Barton Springs end of Edwards Aquifer

Monday, September 14, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

Revisions to the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District’s rules and bylaws will help the agency respond more effectively to drought conditions, district officials say. The rule changes were passed on a 4-1 vote by the district’s board of directors Thursday evening and became effective immediately.

 

The most significant change is a new “exceptional stage drought” designation, the third of four drought stages, which is triggered when the Barton Springs discharge falls below 14 cubic feet per second. (Non-drought flow is above 38 cfs.)

 

Under the exceptional drought stage, the district can mandate a 40 percent cutback in household usage. The new rules also lower the trigger for the “emergency response stage,” from 14 cfs to 10 cfs, and allows the district to ban all non-essential water use – including non-agricultural commercial users, such as golf courses and the two rock quarries located in the district – during the emergency response stage.

 

The other drought stages are also affected, to a lesser degree. The second, or “critical,” drought stage now kicks in at 20 cfs and calls for 30 percent usage cutbacks. The least severe drought stage of “alarm” remains as is. It is triggered at 38 cfs and calls for a 20 percent cutback in usage.

 

Adding the new drought stage allows the district more flexibility in managing the aquifer in times of drought, officials say. “We tried to reflect what the needs are, and still preserve the water for as many people as we can,” says Bob Larsen, district board president. “I think it’s a meaningful plan for how to manage a resource that is becoming more and more scarce.”

 

Both the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter and the Save Our Springs Alliance supported the rule changes.

 

Among board members, the only disagreement on the new drought stage centered around what data to use in determining spring flow. Board staff recommended using a 30-day average spring flow to determine the “exceptional” drought stage instead of a 10-day average, which is used to determine the first two drought stages of “alarm” and “critical.” Staff members explained that a 30-day average painted a more accurate picture of the aquifer’s condition and would give the board a greater level of confidence in the data before imposing drought restrictions.

 

However, Board Member Craig Smith balked at the recommendation and offered an amendment to use a 10 day-average. “I feel that the threat to the Barton Springs salamander is so severe at low spring flow … that the risk is too great at that level to hold out for that kind of certainty,” Smith said. His amendment passed 3-2, with Larsen and Board Member Jack Goodman voting no. Larsen finally voted against the overall rule changes, apparently because he opposed Smith’s amendment.

 

A representative from Texas Lehigh Cement Company and Centex Materials protested the rule change that would allow the district to cut off their water supply during an emergency response period.

 

“We feel like the industrial permittees should not take the brunt of the (drought) conditions,” said David Loftis, president of Centex, a Buda company that mines stone and produced gravel and concrete for construction uses. “We are vital to this community and we should be considered and not overlooked. …We are working towards other water sources but it doesn’t happen overnight.”

 

According to the BSEACD web site, Texas Lehigh was one of the permittees not complying with drought rules, pumping more than allowed, during May, June and July. http://www.bseacd.org/graphics/2009_Drought_Compliance_July.pdf

 

The new rules do provide some help to commercial users and public water systems that are affected by the changes. The rules now allow users who are permitted to draw water from the aquifer, but are not doing so, to transfer 75 percent of their water allotment to users who need it. The remaining 25 percent would be reclaimed by the district and remain unused for conservation purposes.

 

“That’s something we put into place to help those negatively impacted by our rules and the shortage of water,” Larsen said.

 

Loftis said that Centex and Lehigh are working with the city of Buda to possibly pipe in treated wastewater from the city for use in their water-intensive operations. Such a move would require approval by the conservation district board because the businesses are located atop the aquifer. Historically, the district has not looked kindly upon wastewater being used above or near the aquifer because of concerns that the wastewater could contaminate the aquifer.

 

However, in a separate motion, the board directed district staff to continue working with Centex and Lehigh on a proposal to use the treated wastewater.

 

“We can’t just regulate,” Larsen said. “We also have to come up with alternative sources.”

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