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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Austin may require registration of groundwater wells
The Austin City Council will consider an item Thursday that could open the door to a better understanding of groundwater wells drilled on any property served by the Austin Water Utility. The move comes in the wake of concerns expressed by Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell about the use of such wells to circumvent city water-use restrictions.
If approved, the resolution – brought forward by Council Members Kathie Tovo and Laura Morrison – would instruct City Manager Marc Ott to complete two actions: The first would produce a new city ordinance by Oct. 11 that would require registration of groundwater wells drilled within the utility’s service area; the second would bring a report back to Council by Nov. 1 about permitting wells on land served by the utility.
City officials were careful to note that any action taken by Council members would be limited to permitting and concerns over whether private drilling has impacted public water in regard to health and public safety. The regulation of groundwater pumping – left to a groundwater conservation district – would be outside the city’s purview.
“An increasing number of private water wells have been drilled in Austin in recent years, and it’s important that the city ensure that drillers have secured the necessary electrical and plumbing permits and that wells comply with all state and local health and safety codes,” Tovo told In Fact Daily via email. “Requiring registration of private wells will help staff get the information they need to verify that private wells do not pose a threat to our public water supply.”
Leffingwell pushed for a retreat from Stage 2 drought restrictions to less restrictive Stage 1 that was eventually approved by Ott in mid-July. As In Fact Daily reported, this move came against advice from conservation staff at the water utility (see In Fact Daily August 9, 2012). Leffingwell had stated his concerns that some homeowners might drill groundwater wells in order to navigate around the watering restrictions that come with the city’s Stage 2 declaration (see In Fact Daily, May 11, 2012).
There is evidence to support Leffingwell’s position and Tovo’s statement. In June, the Austin American-Statesman’s Dave Harmon reported on the phenomenon, which he suggested is concentrated in West Austin. “As plummeting lake levels triggered drastic watering restrictions during the drought, homeowners drilled 47 new water wells in Austin last year — more than doubling the 19 drilled the year before, according to data from the Texas Water Development Board,” Harmon wrote. “More than 150 new wells have been drilled since 2006 — the number also jumped during droughts in 2006 and 2009 — and nearly all of those wells are in West Austin neighborhoods such as Pemberton Heights, Tarrytown and Balcones, where many homes boast lush, carefully manicured landscaping.”
Though the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Groundwater Conservation District has jurisdiction over the southern portion of the city – and can provide some regulation of well drilling in the region – the northern portion of Austin remains uncovered by a similar groundwater conservation district.
According to the proposed resolution, city staff have already begun the process of determining where groundwater wells are located, and which of those facilities have the appropriate permits. However, the document goes on to note that “sufficient data does not exist to assess the health and safety impacts of water wells, the potential effects on stream flow and aquifer levels, or the effect on our citywide conservation efforts.”
Any action that the city could take would happen under the shadow of the Day decision, a verdict delivered in February by the Texas Supreme Court that, according to the Texas Observer, could mean “regulators may have to pony up when they deny or limit a request to pump.”
Still, the water utility’s conservation director Daryl Slusher told In Fact Daily that the resolution brought forward by Tovo and Morrison would start a fairly narrowly defined effort. “This is not intended in any way to regulate pumping from the wells,” he said.
Slusher pointed to the current situation, noting that the city relies on dated information from the state to give it an idea of where wells are being drilled. “We don’t have a complete or totally accurate (picture) of where wells are being drilled,” he said.
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