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Drill, Balcones Road, Drill

Posted: Sun, 3 Jul 2011 12:02 PM - 6,521 Readers

By: Ramon Martinez
photography by Bee Cave Drilling Company

While Lake Travis is beginning to look like it's balding from extremely low water levels, some of Austin's wealthier residents would be damned if they're going to let the green grass of their sprawling lawns go brown.
As the greater Austin area progresses into one of the driest summers since Texas joined the union, residents near Balcones Road in West Austin have reportedly begun drilling residential wells. Heavy-duty boring equipment has appeared in the neighborhood, along with chatter about who's doing what with a 300-hundred-foot hole in their backyard. There are questions as to whether these are attempts to skirt the city's watering water restrictions and their accompanying fines during a severe drought.

However, there is another question: Which agency, if any, has authority over these wells or jurisdiction over the water they are tapping?

Austin Water is responsible for conserving the Colorado River. George Calhoun, the utility's assistant director of pipeline operations, said, "Determining if these wells are tapping into an aquifer recharged by the same water source, or are simply just layers of water under a property owner's land, depends on how deep they're going."

Either way, utility spokesman Jeff Hall told the Chronicle, "The city has no jurisdiction over residential drilling."

However, Lauren Ross, an environmental engineer and owner of consultants Glenrose Engineering, is confident the drilling is tapping into the Northern Edwards Aquifer. "They'll go as deep as they need to get water," she said. The Northern Edwards is hydrologically cut off from the rest of the famed aquifer by the Colorado River, so it is not the same source that feeds Austin's popular Barton Springs pool. Neither is the Northern Edwards a source for Austin's potable drinking or lawn-bound water, as most springs and aquifers of this kind are the result of rainwater catchments and their outlets, which are not necessarily sources protected by the city. But well-drilling on the aquifer "could be diminishing the flow of small springs in that area, likely with endangered or near-endangered species," said Ross.

The real truth about the groundwater under Balcones Road is, well, more or less unknown. "There's no regulatory authority in the area," says Guy Riales of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District. The state of Texas has designated the small strip of land between Riales' turf and where the Hayes Trinity Conservation District picks up just a few miles north as a priority groundwater management district. "But it was basically a designation that said the issues here need to be addressed through some regulatory process," said Riales. Shortly after the state's decision, that regulatory process was put on hold when residents voted to do without, he said: "There was a sentiment of over-regulation by a government entity."

According to Riales, the city has nonetheless stopped approving neighborhood plats on the west side for any new development that cannot prove access to a reliable water source. Such decisions have been made since droughts in 2008 saw existing wells in recognized conservation districts dug deeper and deeper – though again, at Balcones Road, no one knows for sure which aquifer is being tapped. "There's a lot of confusion out where the Edwards is the surface source, but beneath lies the Trinity,” said Riales. "Many of the wells out there are hybrid wells, drawing from both aquifers, which isn't even allowed anymore."

There are some state-mandated regulations for the priority management district – such as a daily limit of 25,000 gallons per well – but, as Riales points out, “there's no enforcement." Riales does believe that, as development is put on hold and other issues like the deepening of wells become a problem, some kind of regulatory body with enforcement jurisdiction will be formed in the area. Still, he added, “In our management district only 200 of the 8,500 wells even have permits, and anything dug before 1980 has been grandfathered in."

*  Story Contributed by: Ramon Martinez


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