Are they drying up Texas on purpose? Declining Texas springs point to possible risks for state water supplies

Texas water crisis
Texas water crisis

Many of the underground water stores often critical to life in Texas, where rain is rare and the sun beats out of a pitiless sky, are running dry.

Across the state, water gushes out of nearly 300 springs — a hidden array of reservoirs that creates creeks, rivers and swimming holes, and that once made agriculture in the western half of the state possible.

But 30 percent of these historic springs are now dry — nearly three times as many as in the 1970s, according to a report from one of the state’s leading water research institutes.

Texas cities, lead author Robert Mace told The Hill, need to be prepared for the possibility that their water supplies could decline or vanish unexpectedly, like the once-burbling waters of many of the now-desiccated springs.

“Springs are the canary in coal mine on sustainable development,” he said. “When springs dry up, that’s a troubling sign that maybe groundwater pumping is not sustainable.”

For more than 70 years, such pumping has been Texas’s escape hatch from a worsening climate. But Mace warned that in many regions, that hatch is closing.

Mace, whose report builds on an iconic study of decline in Texas springs, is the executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

That has given him “a front row seat on some spring failures,” he said.

He means that literally. The Meadows Center sits atop the icy, crystal waters of the San Marcos River, which flows out of the Edwards Aquifer, an underground system of interconnected limestone cavities deep under the Texas Hill Country — feeding habitats for both endangered species and Texas State students who swim and sun on the river’s banks.


Last year, however, outflow from the San Marcos Spring reached its lowest recorded level.

During the same period, Jacob’s Well, an iconic swimming hole and cave-diving site an hour west of Austin, went dry for 222 days — its longest dry period in recorded history.

The threat of deteriorating and dying springs is not a new concern. In 1999, for instance, Phantom Lake Springs stopped flowing — spiking fears that the downstream oasis of San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea, one of the jewels of arid, scrubby West Texas, might be next.

But the springs’ decline hasn’t gotten a comprehensive look in half a century — until The Meadows Center report.

The last major treatment came in 1975, when Texas hydrogeologist Gunnar Brune wrote a report for the state Water Development Board called “Springs of Texas” — an exhaustive survey of the places where water seeps, drips and surges from the state’s aquifers.

Brune wrote that report a generation after the defining change in Texas groundwater: the crushing drought that began in 1949.

That drought transformed Texas, dealing the state’s rural areas a critical blow, driving nearly 30 percent of its farms out of business, and helping to spur its move from a primarily agrarian economy to a primarily industrial one, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

The farms that survived those dry years did so by looking down.

During that period, Mace said, thousands of Texas farmers would have gone broke if not for a mid-century innovation: the development of cheap, powerful pumps that let agriculture penetrate further into the groundwater than ever before and connected to a new state-wide grid of electric lines and gas pipelines that powered them.

The onslaught of the drought combined with this new technology drove groundwater pumping in Texas from about a million acre-feet per year to 10 million acre-feet. (An acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land in a foot of water.)

The drought of the 1950s — which is still considered by the state’s water development board to be the drought of record against which all else is measured — ended in 1957.

But the state’s groundwater pumping level has remained remarkably consistent. Even as Texas has shifted away from agriculture and toward industry, and as its population has surged more than fourfold, that number has stayed within 20 percent or so of its high during the 1950s drought.

According to The Meadows Center, groundwater pumping in the state currently withdraws about 8 million acre-feet per year.


While that water has allowed Texas to develop dryland industries that would otherwise be impossible — like the growing dairies of the Panhandle that feed on the Ogallala Aquifer — it has come at a distinct cost.

In 1975, Brune found that 10 percent of the state’s historic springs had gone dry — a result of the cumulative 250 million acre-feet that fields and cities had pumped out of the groundwater.

In the half-century since, that total has soared to 700 million acre-feet — about 207 cubic miles. That’s about twice the volume of Lake Erie or more than 300 times the volume of the Highland Lake system that supplies Austin.

Mace hypothesized that nearly threefold rise in pumping should be reflected in a parallel collapse in springs. He was right: Over the past 50 years, the levels of decline Brune found tripled.

Mace said this was likely driven in part by climate change both cutting rainfall and causing rain to fall more often in sudden, short lived torrents that don’t last long enough to seep into the aquifers below.

The climate connection is a particular concern because for all its proactive planning, the Texas Water Development Board doesn’t factor climate effects into its long-term plans for the state water supply.

The board doesn’t even account for the possibility that the state could have a drought worse than the one in the 1950s — which would be possible even if fossil fuel combustion wasn’t forcing up temperatures and drying Texas out, Mace said.

But the biggest overall contributor to spring decline is overpumping — mostly for agriculture, but also for new suburban and exurban developments springing up on the old cattle leases and farmland that surround Texas cities.

In Texas, like in much of the West, the surface water that flows through creeks, lakes and rivers is tightly regulated — but underground water is considered to be private property, meaning that a landowner above an aquifer can remove as much as they want.

That has driven a pattern of grossly unsustainable withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle, which is currently being drawn down at six times the rate it recharges — a pattern that has driven increasing use as new users seek to get their share before the resource is depleted.

In that region, Mace said, “they are mining the groundwater — which means we can put a death date on the aquifer in terms of people’s use going forward.”

Development has the same effect. Jacob’s Well went dry in large measure because local water provider, Aqua Texas, is pumping twice what it is legally permitted by the local groundwater district, then-Texas Monthly senior editor Forrest Wilder reported.


David Baker, the founder of the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, offered a warning of the coming decline years earlier, telling Wilder in 2009 that the valley faced an unsustainable paradox. “I think we’ve reached the limit, yet more homes are going in as we speak,” Baker told Wilder. “And that’s the dilemma.”

In January, Aqua Texas sued the groundwater district in federal court over the $454,000 fine it was issued for overpumping, according to public radio station KUT. The suit alleges that by restricting the company to its allotted amount of groundwater, the district is imposing “unlawful and unequal treatment” and prohibiting the provision of “continuous and adequate water service to its customers.”

Aqua Texas told The Hill that it has been trying to pump further outside the Jacob’s Well watershed, but the attempt to drill new wells has “been blocked by the same local regulators publicly expressing concern about the natural spring’s water levels.”

The company also argued that it is legally required to supply its customers with water, and that this obligation hasn’t gone away even as the population of the valley has boomed.

Mace said that dispute cuts to the heart of water governance in Texas and to the dilemmas that underlie the steady depletion of the state’s springs. It gets at the question, he said, of “what are powers of a district — can they tell people how much water to use?”

Federal protections can limit pumping — and have, for example, in San Marcos Spring, where they’ve kept water flowing year-round even in a period of prolonged drought.

In 1991, the Sierra Club sued Texas under the Endangered Species Act, arguing that state water policy was driving five endangered Texas species native only to the San Marcos and Comal Springs toward extinction.

While the Texas Water Development Board doesn’t consider the needs of wildlife in its state water plan, the Endangered Species Act provides a powerful umbrella of protection, even for small and easily-missed species: in this case, the fountain darter, the San Marcos gambusia, the San Marcos salamander, the Texas blind salamander and Texas wild rice.

The Sierra Club won, and that victory stymied moves by farmers north of San Antonio to sink wells that would have dried up the springs, at least for much of the year.

At the time, this was brutally controversial: San Antonio Mayor Bill Thornton said that federal Judge Lucius Bunton was “jacking us around” in order to save a “scrawny, underfed lizard.” (Salamanders are amphibians.)

But following the suit, former San Antonio City Manager Lou Fox told The Austin Chronicle that groundwater “is our Achilles heel. We don’t understand that this commodity is terribly under-priced and we abuse it by not recognizing that we are literally getting a free ride.”

For all the initial controversy, the region has adapted to — and even flourished from — the higher federal protections. The Comal River, which flows from the Comal Spring, is the center of a summer floating and tourism industry in fast-growing New Braunfels, a sector that brings the city $700 million in income per year, an amount that would be drastically reduced if the river stopped flowing.

The overall picture of the state is troubling, however, Mace said. “The fact that the state water plan doesn’t consider climate change — that worries me quite a lot.”

Across Texas, he said, “Folks get too cozy about their firm yields and their reliable water supply — when it’s not as reliable as they think it is.

“It would be good for people to understand that still a risk you could run out of water — and to have a plan for what do you do in an emergency: to know what is the decision point at which they say, ‘Boom, it’s time to look for this interconnect to this system further east.’”

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  1. Create a water crisis and then impose all the restrictions on travel, leisure, what you can say/drive/eat, etc. you want.

    It’s brilliant. Nobody believes the planet is in trouble, but say water is running out? It must be true. The government says it and the media reported it.

  2. Part of the problem is planning.Stopping additional building is prudent.Aquifers in dry areas should always be seen as finite.This allows planning that operates on the worst case scenario ie running out of water.Yes far less would be built but what is built is solid from a water utility perspective.They need limits on crops that require lots of water.Even if only temporarily.
    Same goes for dairy farming.Diversifying to beef cattle that take less water.Not adding to the dairy side for a few years.
    Consider water run off capture.Diverted to deep wells

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