Water symposium

Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, speaks during the 19th annual Bell County Water Symposium at Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen.

Growth in Central Texas is creating new demands on drinking water as more families and companies move into the region.

The effect of rapid growth on local communities will be the focus on the Bell County Water Symposium, set for Wednesday, Nov. 17, at the Assembly Hall of the Bell County Expo Center, 301 W. Loop 121 in Belton.

The 20th annual symposium — organized by the Belton-based Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District — will be 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The free event will include a lunch sponsored by local companies and consulting firms. The theme of the symposium is “Changes in Texas mean changes in Bell County.”

The event was canceled last year because of the pandemic, but Clearwater officials said they are excited to restart the event with partners Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Bell County, the Bell County Engineers office and the Bell County Commissioners Court.

“We also have additional sponsors who have been very supportive,” Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater district since June 2011, said in a news release.

Michael Irlbeck, business development director for EPCOR USA Inc., will be the symposium’s first speaker. He will talk about working with industry, municipalities and communities to develop and manage water and wastewater solutions.

Dr. Roel Lopez, director of the Texas A&M Natural Resource Institute, and Dr. Robert Mace, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, will share a presentation that will focus on rural trends for land development and what that means for groundwater in Texas.

“Bell County is experiencing tremendous development of rural lands by fragmentation and subdivisions in an unparalleled fashion with developers depending on groundwater of which is unsustainable,” Aaron said.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn will give the keynote address on regional growth.

“Judge Blackburn is a key leader in Bell County who is helping all communities navigate the need to understand many issues related to our expanding population, from the demand for new developments and the need to supply water in a sustainable fashion to the Endangered Species Act,” Aaron said. “The need for planning has always been a key to future growth, but once we have experienced more than 20% population growth here in Central Texas, the need for water today that was planned for tomorrow is upon us.”

Clearwater will present data from recent studies that look at the depletion of artesian pressure in the portion of the Trinity Aquifer beneath southwestern Bell County.

“This issue has been discussed in a collaborative effort with our legislators and the county judges and commissioners of both Bell and Williamson counties,” Aaron said. “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.”

Counties south of Bell continue to use 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, Aaron said.

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, Aaron said.

If the trend continues, he said, pumps will eventually have to be lowered in wells with water levels reaching the top of the aquifer. That will become a problem within 30 years in some developments west of Interstate 35, Aaron said.

“In northern portions of Williamson County, the Middle Trinity Aquifer water levels are near the top of the aquifer,” Aaron said. “Landowners in this area have reported difficulties accessing groundwater from the Middle Trinity. 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 conditions in the Lower Trinity “are better than in the Middle Trinity, but the Lower Trinity is the more expensive alternative that may not exist in some areas due to the unknown structure and challenges to drilling.”

Clearwater district is conducting a risk assessment that will need to be evaluated by district officials and landowners “before we can continue expending resources before drilling wells for rural development,” Aaron said.

“The Water Symposium will have a panel of experts to discuss the science of understanding the limited sustainability of groundwater during these challenging times,” he said.

The event will aid the community by reminding them of the importance of water and its limited amounts.

“As population trends in (Bell and Williamson) counties continue an upward trajectory, management, coupled with planning is the key to measured growth,” Aaron said.

The symposium will also give special recognition to some stakeholders and longtime leaders who have aided in water conservation efforts since a drought in the 1950s helped lead to the creation of Lake Belton and Stillhouse Hollow Lake.

“The board of directors of Clearwater UWCD look forward to another year of showcasing the importance of both surface water and groundwater to our robust economy,” Aaron said.

WATER SYMPOSIUM REGISTRATION

Pre-registration for the free Bell County Water Symposium is required by calling Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District at 254-933-0120 or Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Belton at 254-933-5305.

The event schedule at-a-glance can be viewed at https://cuwcd.org.