Bell County Water Symposium

Bell County Judge David Blackburn discusses water conservation efforts in Texas during a water symposium on Wednesday.

BELTON — Bell County Judge David Blackburn said he believes that water conservation efforts in Texas will eventually be dictated by the state.

“The state has by and large left water conservation in general to the local level,” he said. “Representatives from local communities, cities and water districts ... all come together to develop a plan that is adopted and sent to the state,” Blackburn said Wednesday. “But I think that the state is going to dictate our water plans to a degree we’ve never seen. If you’ve been a big fan of the state mandates during the (COVID-19) pandemic get ready ... because I think that’s coming for water.”

Although Blackburn — who spoke during the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District’s 20th annual Bell County Water Symposium on Wednesday — hopes to be proved wrong, he highlighted current challenges that could set that transition in motion.

“There’s been lots of planning going on for decades with regards to what we should be doing to meet our water needs going forward, but there’s lots of hope built into those plans,” Blackburn said. “The hope that more people will use less water is a key component in our plans right now … and that’s a challenge for us in plan after plan after plan.”

Yet the Bell County judge is still adamant that water conservation decisions are best made locally.

“I do believe that locally we can make the best decisions … but it takes a political will to do things,” Blackburn said. “In my perspective, especially in regards to the water infrastructure needs, we’re not doing what my parents and my parents’ parents did; which was investing not to their benefit but for the benefit of their grandkids.”

With water demand increasing alongside Texas’ booming population, he hopes water conservation plans can soon be executed.

Texas had 12 counties with 30% to 50% growth rates over the past decade, and counties south of Bell — where high growth continues — are using more than 42,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year from the Edwards (Balcones Fault Zone) and Trinity aquifers.

By comparison, Bell County used less than 5,000 acre-feet in 2020, according to the Clearwater district.

“Our concerns that the true pumping numbers of groundwater in Bell, Williamson and northern Travis counties are still relevant, and the issue has seen the light of day because Clearwater has funded the necessary science ourselves to see what the regional pumping of groundwater is,” Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater since 2011, said.

He added how a drawdown analysis of the Middle and Lower Trinity Aquifers in Bell, Travis and Williamson counties confirms that extreme declines continue at nearly 10 feet per year.

If the trend continues, Aaron expects well pumps to be lowered with water levels reaching the top of the aquifer — a problem he said could impact some developments west of Interstate 35 within 30 years.

However, landowners in Williamson County are already reporting difficulties about accessing groundwater from the Middle Trinity Aquifer.

“It is likely that many well owners will soon, if they do not already, have pumps set near the bottom of their wells and will have to adjust to limited groundwater availability or find alternative water supplies,” Aaron said.