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Landscape architects get their well but can’t pump until drought is over

Monday, September 28, 2009 by Laurel Chesky

At a time when Central Texans are being asked to curtail their water use, the public has little stomach for those who keep the sprinklers on. An Aug. 17 Austin American-Statesman article revealing the city’s highest residential water users, including Rep. Michael McCaul (ranked at number seven), riled readers who have been watching their lawns turn beige.


That’s the climate in which Rollingwood residents James David and Gary Peese applied to the Barton Springs-Edwards Aquifer Conservation District for a permit to drill a well on their property. They want to pump 1 million gallons a year – nearly 10 times what the average Austin household uses – out of the Trinity Aquifer in order to save their landscaping. The Barton Springs end of the Edwards Aquifer is currently in critical stage drought, requiring the aquifer’s 50,000 users to cut back water use by 30 percent and to cease watering except by hand.


Last Thursday, the district board approved the drilling permit. However, the board denied a request for a variance to allow David and Peese to begin drawing water while the district is in a drought phase. So, until more rain falls, Peese and David will continue to watch their two-acre oasis slowly fade.


On the surface, the decision seems like a no brainer. In a time of drought, it seems fair that everyone should cut back on water use. However, a deeper plunge into Peese and David’s permit request reveals the hardships residents face in times of persistent drought.


David and Peese are landscape architects and have heavily invested in their own landscaping, which serves as a showcase of their skills for prospective clients. Their property – which contains a swimming pool, three ponds and a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse, which is cooled by water – also provides a lush venue for charity events. The garden has been used for fundraising events for the Eanes Independent School District, the Nature Conservancy and a nonprofit serving at-risk youth, according to David.


Among the plants taken by the drought so far, five live oak trees on the property have died and 12 others are at risk, the owners say.


“It was a real disaster,” David told the board on Thursday. “We’ve had $100,000 worth of losses so far.”


The applicants argued that the proposed well would actually benefit the drought-ridden Edwards Aquifer. The well would be drilled into a part of the Middle Trinity Aquifer (which is adjacent to the Edwards also under the district’s jurisdiction), relieving pumping from the Edwards Aquifer – the Ridgewood Village Water System, which draws from the Edwards, currently serves the property. According to hydrology surveys provided by David and Peese’s consultant, the area where they intended to drill is a self-contained pocket ensconced by a fault, so no other well users would be affected.


“If we were going to hurt the environment, I wouldn’t be interested in (the well) at all,” David said.


The applicants also argued that the project could provide the district with information about a little known portion of the Trinity Aquifer at their expense. The well is estimated to cost the property owners between $55,000 and $75,000, with no guarantee that they’d hit water or find water of sufficient quality to use for irrigation.


The board was moved enough by the argument to grant David and Peese a permit to drill the well and pump up to 800,000 gallons a year from it.


“This is an opportunity to get them off the Edwards, off of good quality drinking water,” said Board Member Mary Stone, “and also to acquire data about the Trinity, so I do see some benefits long term to this project.”


However, the board was not convinced to allow the applicants to pump water during the drought, in essence defeating the short-term point of the project – to save a dying landscape and protect a property owner’s investment.


“The mission of the district is to protect and preserve the water,” said Board Member Gary Franklin. “The message we’re sending out to people is to conserve. This (project) goes against conservation.”

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