One in an occasional series
KILLEEN — Lyle Larson, a San Antonio Republican who heavily influences water policy in Texas, said officials in Bell and Williamson counties need to get over their beef on water and work together.
“I think it’s incumbent upon every elected official in both counties to sit down and grow a set and do it,” the state representative said during the 19th annual Bell County Water Symposium at Texas A&M University-Central Texas last week.
Well owners in Southwest Bell County near the county line have seen significant drawdown in recent years. Dirk Aaron, the general manager of the Belton-based Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, said some wells have life spans ranging from 6 to 29 years.
And, because of the decreasing groundwater supplies, Clearwater requires new subdivisions popping up in rural Bell County to install devices that lower the flow of water in homes.
Larson’s prescription for ending the water feud between the two counties didn’t just stop at his blunt message for elected officials.
First, he said, officials from both governments need to agree to get the science to really find out what’s going on in the Trinity and Edwards aquifers.
Bell County’s legislators — state Reps. Hugh Shine and Brad Buckley and state Sen. Dawn Buckingham — pushed for a bill to do just that in the spring. The House unanimously approved the measure. It died in the Senate — fulfilling a promise made by Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell.
“The only thing we ask for in water is science,” said Larson, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman. “The science will tell you if we’re going to have water and you can project it.”
Buckingham, a Lakeway Republican, expects the aquifer study to be completed before 2021 — and without the Texas Legislature.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to get the science and we’re going to get a fair treatment for everyone across this aquifer,” she said.
After the science is completed, Larson said, a new regulatory structure may need to be implemented in one or both of the counties to protect groundwater. Williamson County — unlike Bell County — does not have a groundwater conservation district.
If both counties do that, Larson predicted a future water calamity — the complete loss of the aquifers — may be averted. Still, any solutions to the water tussle won’t come easy.
“With a population that is surging in this area, we’re going to have to do something — and it’s going to be dramatic,” Larson said.
Collaboration key to future
Bell County Judge David Blackburn has been chatting with Williamson County officials. No concrete plans have been developed yet, Blackburn said.
“But what I can tell you there is a dialogue occurring, and the dialogue — I hope and I’m working for — to be productive and that we do see some collaboration come out of that dialogue,” the Bell County judge said. “I’m not naive enough to believe that we will get 100 percent of the solutions through those discussions, but I also think collaboration with Williamson County is going to be key to the future for both Bell County and Williamson County.”
The two counties are already linked: They’re in the 31st Congressional District together; Interstate 35 runs through each of them; the aquifers; and residents go back and forth between the two areas.
But they need to work more on water. The last proper study of the Trinity and Edwards aquifers in Bell, Williamson, Travis, Milam and Burnet counties was conducted in the 1990s. Buckley’s House Bill 3264 would have updated the data.
“The reason why Williamson County is opposed to this piece of legislation is we believe that it is simply an attempt to do a groundwater study in order to create a groundwater conservation district,” Gravell, the Williamson County Judge, told members of the Senate Water and Rural Affairs Committee earlier this year.
‘A gray area’
Gravell may not want a groundwater conservation district, but it is becoming increasingly obvious to lawmakers that Williamson County needs one.
Drawdown in Bell County is alarming to Larson. He said if you extend it to Williamson County, they are likely having the same issue.
“We need to do a study, and we need to add Williamson County into a groundwater district. That’s what needs to happen,” Larson said. “It’s unbelievable that we have a gray area where we have regulation all the way up the (I-35) corridor all the way down the corridor, and we have a bubble right here that we’re not recognizing from a regulatory standpoint.”
Groundwater conservation districts can be created one of two ways: Through the Legislature — such as Clearwater, which voters later confirmed — or by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The Williamson County Judge told lawmakers he viewed a conservation district as placing too many regulations and too much taxation on his constituents.
Williamson County officials and residents should not feel threatened by a groundwater conservation district, Larson said.
“If the water is there then you’re going to get your permits. If the water is not there, you’re probably going to get what you’re entitled to from a property standpoint — but you can’t do it to the detriment of this region,” the legislator said.
Water demand is growing yearly in Bell and Williamson counties.
The Texas Water Plan projects that Bell County will have 106,292 acre feet of water in 2020. Demand is estimated to be 76,075 acre feet next year.
An acre foot of water is about 326,000 gallons — or enough to cover a football field under one foot of water.
By 2030, Bell County’s demand of water increases to 85,958 acre feet. Supplies will decrease to 104,280 acre feet.
Bell County’s demands for water will outpace its supplies by 2050. Demands are projected to be 109,131 acre feet and supplies are estimated to be 101,123 acre feet.
There will be a 20,994 acre feet deficit in 2060, and a decade later it will grow to 33,662 acre feet.
Williamson County will have a water deficit in 2020, according to the Texas Water Plan. Demands will be 116,603 acre feet while supplies will be 103,307 acre feet. That is a deficit of 19,421 acre feet
The deficit will grow to 38,847 acre feet in 2030, and continue to grow to 163,432 acre feet by 2070.
Need to address soon
Bell County’s legislators, county officials and Larson expect water technologies — such as aquifer storage and recovery and desalination — to be built in the area to meet future water demands.
Larson, who travels the state to talk about water issues, said the Bell-Williamson situation is happening across Texas.
“We’ve got other areas where we have similar conditions that we’re going to reconcile,” the San Antonio lawmaker said. “This one, right now — because of the proximity to Austin and all of the concerns and science — is the one we need to address in the next session.”