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Barton Springs aquifer district moves forward with Legislative plans

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

(Note: This story has been corrected to name correct sponsors of legislation.)


The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District is diving into the current session of the Texas Legislature. Having recently voted to endorse two bills and with a third in the wings, the district hopes to set some standards for a state that continues to suffer through an ongoing drought.


Chief Operating Officer Kirk Holland spoke with In Fact Daily about the bills. He said that although their proposed legislation would only apply to their district, all three represent changes that could be embraced by all of Texas in the future, as many districts across the state face similar challenges.


House Bill 340 is the only bill that has been introduced thus far. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) is sponsoring the bill, and the district hopes that the identical senate companion bill will be carried by by Senator Judith Zaffarini (D-Laredo) and perhaps co-sponsored by Sen. Glenn Hegar (R-Katy).


The bill has two main objectives. First, it will allow the district to work on desalination of the brinier parts of the Edwards Aquifer. That saltier part of the aquifer is East of I-35, an area filled with brackish groundwater that can’t be used as drinking water without treatment. At the moment, desalination is too costly an option.


There is a state law that prohibits the injection of anything that’s been physically, chemically or biologically altered into the Edwards Aquifer.


As a result, the district is currently unable to dispose of the briny concentrate that is a bi-product of desalination in the most cost-effective way – which is injection into the Deep Trinity Aquifer, which is even worse quality, for permanent disposal.


“That law was put into place to protect the freshwater Edwards,” said Holland. “But no one was really even thinking about the saline Edwards.”


The bill would also help allow “aquifer storage recovery.” The district would be able to inject freshwater (whether its aquifer, surface or rain water) into the saline Edwards. This would allow the district to stock up on clean, available water during times of plenty, then withdraw from the stored water during times of drought.


“It doesn’t really mix with the saline Edwards water,” said Holland.


The same restrictions that prohibit injection in the case of desalination byproducts currently prohibit the district from this type of storage, explained Holland, as there is very little freshwater that hasn’t been treated in some way, even if it’s just chlorination.


The second bill, which Holland expects will be filed in the next week or so, has been sent to the legislative council by Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), who will be one of its sponsors.


This bill calls for a study of wastewater management technology options for the contributing zone of the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer. The study will look at Texas Land Application Permits, septic systems – and even integrated wastewater management systems within communities that employ reclaimed water.


Then, dependent on the results of the study, the bill would ask the legislature to direct the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to undertake rulemaking which would protect the aquifer, as it concerns wastewater management, at the Onion Creek and Barton Creek watersheds.


The third bill – which has yet to be approved by the aquifer district board – will look at changing the enabling legislation of the district to raise the water use fee.


This change is based on the premise that water use fees would be different for aquifers that have reached their Modeled Available Groundwater limits. Holland explained that, as is the case for the Freshwater Edwards Aquifer, once aquifers have reached that threshold it becomes much more costly to manage and monitor aquifers.


If implemented, the new water use fee system would set a ceiling based on the value of draw surface water, limiting increases to 10 percent annually for permittees.


Holland explained that the cost of groundwater in Texas is greatly undervalued. It’s just a fraction of the cost of surface water.


Research into alternative water supplies can also be costly, and with a provision that 50 percent of the increase would go towards just that, the district is hoping to help defray the cost of facing a potentially dry future.


Holland was clear that the future of this bill was still up in the air, and somewhat dependent on the results of an ongoing stakeholder process.


“If we get a lot of pushback, we won’t file it this year,” said Holland. His hope is that district permittees will see that a cost increase is not unreasonable – and that the dividends of an increase could help them in the long run, providing resources that are not available now in the future.

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