According to a recent article by the Associated Press, about 1,000 people arrive in Texas each day, drawn by jobs, newly built homes and other opportunities. But in a state where prolonged drought is a regular occurrence, officials are struggling to ensure they can sate everyone’s thirst.
Water experts are trying to determine how “resilient” the state’s water infrastructure is in keeping safe drinking water flowing through the taps, according to the AP article. There are indications that the system is more fragile than once thought: After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, more than 200 public water systems shut down or warned customers to boil their tap water. Months later, 3,700 Texans still lacked access to safe drinking water. Before that storm, 30 towns in 2013 were within six months of running out of water as a drought continued to grip the state.
“The state is growing so fast that we’re constantly playing catch-up when it comes to building resilient water supplies,” said Robert Mace, executive director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. “The question is: When the bad times come will there be enough water for everybody?”
The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which serves Parker County, was created by Texas Legislature in 2007 after the Texas Water Development Board identified several counties were either currently experiencing or expected to experience critical groundwater problems with the quality or quantity.
The UTGCD has been working on proposed rules for the county for some time to provide a framework that will allow availability and accessibility of groundwater for future generations and protect the quality of groundwater in the recharge zone of the aquifer.
“You have to understand groundwater management in general and what we’re charged by the state with doing and that’s meeting these desired future conditions. So how do you get there? How do you meet these desired future conditions? Well, it’s through things like tract size requirements, it’s things like permitting,” UTGCD General Manager Doug Shaw said. “Our data, the state’s data, all shows that water levels are trending down and it varies due to where pumping is happening. An aquifer doesn’t act like a lake. There are areas of Parker County that are completely undeveloped with no groundwater production and water levels are fairly static. But then you look at areas where there’s high levels of production and water levels are falling and more so than falling is production in the wells is falling.”
The UTGCD will hold another public hearing on its proposed rules at 4 p.m. on June 17 at its district office, 1859 W. Highway 199, Springtown, about the proposed rules.
Shaw said the UTGCD is trying to implement a permitting system for non-exempt wells — commercial and public water supply wells. The proposal for increasing the well tract requirement from two acres to five has been abandoned at this time.
“Permitting is really the only way you can limit the amount of water that’s coming out of the ground, so permitting is really the only tool that groundwater districts, like us around the state, have in basically getting a handle on the amount of pumping that’s occurring,” Shaw said. “This is specifically in regards to large commercial and public water supply wells, so wells that provide water for oil and gas activity or public water supply wells like large city wells. Chapter 36 of the water code requires that wells that are not exempt have a permitting system, largely based on historic use.”
Shaw said he isn’t sure when the board will make a motion on the proposed rules, but said at some point they will have to take action.
According to AP, the big-ticket projects in Texas and greater push for long-term planning — the state every five years updates its water strategy based on a 50-year outlook — smack head-on against infrastructure defined by aging water lines, outdated treatment plants and smaller utilities focused on their own interests rather than regional ones.
These and other factors were at play when Texas cities and utilities in 2015 issued 1,550 boil-water advisories, up from about 1,100 in 2012 and 650 in 2008, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Texas in 2002 was lagging by 2.4 million acre feet in meeting water demands at the height of severe drought, he said, and now the state is 4.7 million acre feet behind. An acre foot amounts to 1 foot (0.3 meter) of water across an acre of land.
Smaller communities “are the ones really struggling,” Mace said. Many don’t have the customer base to afford a revamped water supply without a substantial increase in water bills. They’re also home to utilities that experts say are risk-averse and reluctant to embrace new technology.
One of those smaller communities includes Horseshoe Bend, which has struggled with water issues through its water system owner Castle Water Inc.
Residents of Horseshoe Bend have experienced many water main breaks, which has resulted in frequent boil notices.
“I believe I would gladly pay more if it wasn’t too, too much as I am on a fixed income as many of us are. It would be worth it to be able to have a clean, dependable water source,” HSB resident Linda Preston said in a previous Weatherford Democrat article.
Castle Water was referred to the Office of the Attorney General in November 2018 after failing to come into compliance with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and is currently under investigation.
Castle Water, owned by Butch Hardie, has also failed to make pay its water use fees to the UTGCD, which are 22 cents per 1,000 gallons of groundwater use.
“They reported their [water] use to us in 2018, but they didn’t make any of the payments. We actually filed suit against them last year and won, and they haven’t made any payments for that either, so they have outstanding judgements against them that our attorney’s are following up on and who knows where that’s going to go,” Shaw said. “We had a hearing in April and the [UTGCD] board basically gave [Hardie] until our June meeting to settle up with us. I spoke with him early May and have not heard from him since, and I really don’t expect him to take care of business. If he doesn’t by the middle of next week, then we’ll schedule a second hearing and if he hasn’t settled up with us by the board meeting on [June] 17 then we’ll likely start the process of filing a suit against him.”
According to the AP article, the work is no easier for water providers, which experts say must cobble together the money necessary to deliver a plentiful amount of safe, potable water — through conservation programs, groundwater and surface water supplies, reservoirs, water reuse and other means.
Robert Paterson, an associate professor at the University of Texas with expertise in growth management and sustainable community development, said Texas trails other states when it comes to broad regional planning that incorporates water needs, land use and other aims. As Paterson notes, watersheds don’t care about boundaries.
“To have it all fragmented from city to city is really problematic and very wasteful,” Paterson said.
With the growth coming to Parker County, the commissioners were presented their draft strategic plan last week, which included continuing to develop a long-term water solution, recognizing how not having one is a major threat to the county.
The commissioners will move forward with the strategic plan once the document is finalized.
The commissioners have also been working with the UTGCD to find solutions in order to gain more data on the groundwater in Parker County.
A full list of the UTGCD proposed rules can be found by visiting uppertrinitygcd.com.
Weatherford Democrat reporter Autumn Owens contributed to this article.