WATER SECURITYHeat, Drought, Population Growth Stress Aquifers Which Supply Water to Millions of Texans

By Dylan Baddour

Published 17 August 2023

Diminishing springs and aquifers due to heat, drought and high for demand water highlight the urgency for Central Texas conservation districts to prioritize climate-focused management, potentially involving reduced pumping for sustainability.

Almost every other day, Charlie Flatten gets a call about another local water well gone dry.

Last week, he tried to help one woman find a water truck to fill her home cistern. But all the hauling companies had suspended service amid a deepening shortage in Central Texas.

“She’s got to go find somewhere else to live,” said Flatten, general manager of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District in Dripping Springs. “This is extremely serious.”

Here in the booming Hill Country southwest of Austin, Flatten said, the Trinity Aquifer is at its lowest level on record. Across the region, iconic natural springs are dwindling or drying up, victims of extreme heat, persistent drought and ever-growing demand for water.

This May, Flatten’s district issued a moratorium on groundwater pumping for the first time in its history. Meanwhile, he said, a private company called Aqua Texas, which provides water utilities to more than 50 Texas counties, continues pumping millions more gallons than it is authorized to take. And there isn’t much he can do about it.

“Their business model does not benefit from conservation,” Flatten said of Aqua Texas, a subsidiary of Essential Utilities, an investor-owned utility with a $10.4 billion market capitalization. “Their business model benefits from selling water, and their shareholders expect them to turn a profit every quarter.”

Flatten sent Aqua Texas a $450,000 fine for pumping almost twice as much as its permit allowed last year, but the company hasn’t paid. Settlement negotiations continue, along with excessive pumping, Flatten said.

“We have contested the over pumping fee with the groundwater district and are currently working closely with them to get that resolved,” said Aqua Texas spokesperson Jennifer Olohan.

“The fee was for over pumping the drought curtailment numbers and not for over pumping the totality of our permit.”

After months of requests from local leaders, Aqua on Friday banned all outdoor water use by its customers.

This situation highlights a critical weakness of aquifer management in Texas, according to Vanessa Puig-Williams, Texas water program director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

2022 report by EDF examined the long-term goals of groundwater conservation districts. It revealed that some regions were managing groundwater in ways that could lead to its eventual exhaustion due to challenges like lack of funding to gather groundwater data. The study found that goals also often fail to account for the local impacts stemming from increased groundwater pumping and drought.