Oct 05, 2012

Austin Wants to Know Where the Wells Are

A sign outside a home in the Tarrytown neighborhood reads that the property is irrigated by a private well. Photo by Beth Cortez-Neavel.

By Beth Cortez-Neavel
For Reporting Texas

The City of Austin is stepping into the fierce battle over water rights and regulation in Texas.

In August, City Council members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo proposed that all private well owners in Austin register their wells with the city. The proposal followed a rise in private well drilling for lawn irrigation use in Austin’s wealthier neighborhoods like Tarrytown, Pemberton Heights and Westlake.

But the Austin ordinance might be a small step for the city in groundwater regulation. A second ordinance — set to be discussed later this month — is intended to regulate the actual drilling of wells in Austin.

The ordinance on registration was set to be posted online Friday afternoon. Daryl Slusher, assistant director of the Austin Water Utility, said it would require well drillers and landowners using Austin water for other services to register wells with the city and obtain the necessary permits before drilling.

Currently, well drillers must be licensed with the state — but not the city — to drill public and private wells and must register each project with the state but not the city.

Austin does require drillers to obtain an electrical pumping permit and a plumbing permit and to install a backflow preventer to prevent untreated water from the private well from entering city water pipes.

“But we’re getting a lot of people that are building them without permits,” Slusher said. Further, he said, the state is slow to publish its information. As a result, “we’re not sure where all the wells are,” he said.

This ordinance would not regulate how much water private well owners can pump or change electric and plumbing standards. Slusher said that instead, the ordinance “will just allow us to better enforce those rules because we’ll know all the wells that are being drilled.”

The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District regulates private well drilling and pumping south of Lady Bird Lake and the Colorado River. North of the river and in most of northern Travis County, no groundwater district regulates usage. So a large part of Austin’s groundwater, specifically the northern part of the Edwards aquifer and Trinity aquifer systems, falls under the law of capture, where private landowners own the water underneath their land and can pump as much as they want.

Robin Havens Gary, the public information and education coordinator for the Barton Springs conservation district, said unlimited pumping can be dangerous, especially if landowners are using their groundwater for such “non-essential” services as maintaining lush lawns and gardens.

“There’s a reason why those are in Virginia and not in Austin. It’s not necessarily sustainable here,” she said.

“The groundwater systems and surface water in our area are connected, and if you’re pulling water out of a groundwater system, it may take years to figure out what that does to the surface water system. But if there’s a net loss of water — it’s all the water that we have to go around.”

A private well owner in Tarrytown said that although the ordinance makes sense to her, she would prefer to not register her well retroactively. “It comes into personal property rights,” said the owner, who only spoke on the condition of confidentiality because the topic is sensitive one in her neighborhood.

“This water under our properties is not coming out of the Edwards Aquifer, and so it’s not affecting the supply that everyone’s talking about,” she said, alluding to the fact that Tarrytown is north of the river. “It’s just something that’s on your property. It’s like asking people to register firearms that they’ve had forever. I don’t think you can ask people to do that. You could ask them to, but you can’t force them to.”

Ross Crow, an Austin assistant city attorney who is drafting the ordinance with Slusher, said that all wells, new and existing, would be required to register with the city. If well owners refused, the city would make further attempts to have them register, or perhaps fine them.

“This is something that is a public health and safety concern because some people apparently are drilling these wells without getting the proper safety protections,” Crow said.

Although the first ordinance would not regulate pumping, John Dupnik, assistant general manager for the Barton Springs conservation district, said the proposal is a step in the right direction. The Trinity Aquifer “is not the aquifer we manage, but ultimately at some point there may be a groundwater district there,” he said.

“Eventually, if there’s any sort of increased demand or increased pumping on that particular aquifer system, it’s probably going to require some sort of more structured management entity,” Dupnik added. “It all starts with at the very least knowing what wells are out there and how many straws are in the drink.

“It also starts to provide some data for any future effort to maybe set up a district, or at the very least get a handle on what type of pumpage is going on and how that affects the aquifer system.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a City of Austin ordinance might try to limit the number of private wells within its jurisdiction.