This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In the United States, Flint residents who have been harmed by the city’s lead crisis scored a significant victory in court last week. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that lawsuits can proceed against state government officials involved in Flint’s water troubles. Named in the lawsuits are former Gov. Rick Snyder, two Flint emergency managers who were appointed by Snyder, and various state agencies. The lawsuits claim that residents suffered bodily harm as well as uncompensated damages to their property because of the spike in lead levels in 2014 and 2015. Lead levels rose because the city’s water was not adequately treated after a switch to the Flint River as its source. Justice Richard Bernstein voted in favor of allowing the lawsuits to proceed. He said “Plaintiffs in this case raise some of the most disturbing allegations of malfeasance by government actors in Michigan’s history.”
Internationally, last year was another deadly one for environmental campaigners. A record 212 land and water protectors were killed in 2019, according to Global Witness, which has tracked and verified activist murders for eight years. More than half of all reported killings happened in just two countries: Colombia and the Philippines. Latin America continued to be the deadliest region. The mining industry was implicated in more killings than any other, including agriculture and logging. Six of the deaths were linked to water and dam building.
In research news out of Texas, a study predicts that the state will be drier over the next century than it has been in the last thousand years. The Texas study was led by the state climatologist. It found that climate change will lead to more megadroughts in a state that already struggles with water supply. Higher temperatures will cause surface water levels to decrease while demand for that water will increase. The study identified four key groups involved in planning for a decline in water supply. Those groups include agriculture, large surface water suppliers, small groundwater management districts, and regional water planning districts.
This week, Circle of Blue takes a closer look at the worsening water situation in Texas. When the pandemic relinquishes its grip, soaring growth and industrial development will once more overwhelm planning and water resources.
The Texas Hill Country is strewn with crystal clear waters and sparkling swimming holes, fed by springs that have formed through peculiar geologic circumstance. In this region of central and southern Texas, thin soils, landscapes of limestone, sinkholes and underground caves are all features of a karst topography, where springs appear as gemstones amid the rocks. Vying for crown jewel status is Jacob’s Well, near the town of Wimberley, in Hays County. It’s an artesian spring that escapes from a submerged cave and forms the headwaters of Cypress Creek. The water bubbles up from the Trinity Aquifer, some 140 feet below, creating a constant temperature of 68 degrees. Set against massive boulders, Jacob’s Well is the major economic force in the area, enhancing the character and wellbeing of communities nearby. Texas Hill Country Magazine described it as “everything we love about the Texas Hill Country.”
One could also describe Jacob’s Well as what might be lost to Texas Hill Country. A couple of years ago that same magazine wondered if the signature spring was an endangered species. As development has increased in Hays County, the level of the Trinity Aquifer has receded to the point where real estate projects now rely on water piped in from a reservoir near Austin. Joshua’s Well has been losing its lifeblood. Twenty years ago, the spring stopped flowing for the first time in recorded history, and since then, it has had other lapses.
This is a serious sign. For one thing, the aquifer suppling the spring also supplies local wells. Jacob’s Well is rather like the canary in the coal mine for the real estate development sector in Texas. It’s a real-time indicator of the shifting balance between stewarding resources and fueling growth.
When Texas has a wet year, booming economic growth and development dispel longer term concerns like population, land use changes and water supply. But in dry years, the long term becomes the present tense as wells fail, power plants stop, and fisheries founder. As the economy withers, water becomes the flashpoint for cultural anxiety, starkly revealing the penalties of runaway growth in uncertain times.
As the climate shifts, it promises to punish with even less predictable, and more extreme weather. Over time, the environmental damage threatens estuaries and the natural systems vital to healthy water supplies. Places like the Hill Country could simply run out of water unless they substantially alter their steep trajectory of swelling populations, industrial development, and housing construction.
Dr. Larry McKinney is director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, a unit of Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. He said “Texas does not understand shortages. It’s the Texas mentality. Texas is so big we’ve had a hard time coming to grips that resources are finite. We really never had to deal with that. Frankly, we’re reaching that point.” McKinney considers the Hill Country a prime example of what he termed “growth gone crazy.” He said “The time to make change is now, before the costs are just too huge to consider.”
The disparity between Texas’ ambitions and its water resources are already so disproportionate that it raises the stakes for the next dry spell. The next deep drought in a bigger, more populous, and thirstier Texas is likely to hurt a lot more.
It’s not that Texas has ignored the danger and despair that comes with drought. The state established the Texas Water Development Board to mitigate water stress back in the 1950s after a particularly punishing drought. The agency serves as a hub for research, funding, and collaborating on ideas and strategies. Every five years, the Board issues a State Water Plan as a kind of guidebook for the next 50 years, including budgeting and best practices for conservation and adaptation.
Despite the data, the plans and the projects, however, the barriers to successfully weathering the ravages of the next big drought are formidable. The Texas economy grows from three major roots: agriculture, fossil fuel production and processing, and real estate development. All of those roots are massive and eager for water. The more the economy bears fruit, the deeper grow the roots, and their thirst. Margo Denke, founder of the stewardship group Friends of Hondo Canyon described her concern, saying “There just won’t be enough water for all. There won’t be mechanisms in place to distribute and use wisely the water that is available.”
In many ways, Jacob’s Well symbolizes the interconnected challenges of managing vulnerable water resources. David Baker is an artist and water advocate who is the principal caretaker of Jacob’s Well. He owns the ranch around it, and became an expert on local hydrology, founding and directing the non-profit Wimberley Valley Watershed Association. He convinced the county to establish a park around Jacob’s Well, and he acquired 300 acres of undeveloped land as a recharge conservation zone to ensure the spring’s steady flow.
Thanks to last winter’s ample snowfall, Jacob’s Well has sent a steady flow into Cypress Creek. From there it joins the Blanco River, which feeds the San Marcos River, which feeds the Guadalupe River, which provides much of the freshwater for the San Antonio Bay estuary along the Gulf of Mexico.
Thus a long chain of communities, industries and ecosystems depend on the water springing from Jacob’s well. As less water drains from the Hill Country, estuaries are shrinking – dire news for sports fisheries, shrimp and oyster beds and habitat for migratory birds and water fowl. Texas wildlife and fisheries managers have been aware of this trend since the 1980s, when the state’s population began to rise by 250,000 each year. That rate of growth is almost double now, and it’s especially fierce in the Hill Country, where Austin and San Antonio are among the fastest growing cities in the nation. The math is uncompromising: less water flowing to the coast, and more, many more, needing to take some as it goes past. Not a promising prospect for the bay at the end of the line.
To keep the bay healthy, those upstream were required to conserve enough water to guarantee environmental flows to the Gulf – a big social ask. Upstream users were not inclined to use less water unless it is mandated — and Texans are notorious for disdaining rules and strictures.
The 57-year-old Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, though, is an agency with sufficient political muscle. Its oversight is closely tied to at least $5 billion in annual tourist and recreational income, and it supports coastal conditions that are vital to billions of dollars more in residential and business development. The Texas legislature also added its weight in 1997 and 2007, with statutes to ensure sufficient supplies of water for ecosystems on the coast.
But even the force of statutes has not succeeded in getting enough water to Corpus Christi and its bay, particularly when the years are dry. The power of the law was simply overwhelmed by the reality of water consumption in the Hill Country and across Texas. So much water had already been spoken for by permit and historic uses that not nearly enough was left in rivers and streams for the environmental flows needed to keep the system viable.
And so, rules for environmental flows were largely ignored when the drought of 2011 hit and river flows to the coast fell short. Without freshwater to hold it back, salt water from the Gulf pushed into the bay, sickening the ecosystem. And this was not the only threat to the area. Following the 2015 boom in oil and gas production, Corpus Christi attracted $54 billion in infrastructure investments – new and expanded refineries, tank farms, pipeline depots, natural gas processing plants, ethylene producers, export terminals, and a mammoth dredging project to widen and deepen the shipping channel.
Several of these installations have been completed. More are under construction. Even more than that are planned for completion after the pandemic subsides. This January, Corpus Christi was positioned as the largest oil and natural gas export terminal in the United States. At times, it accounted for more than half of U.S. crude oil exports.
In April, though, as the pandemic swept the world and the transportation sector declined, exports began to retreat.
Regardless of the virus’ effect on the energy trade, other installations in the region are being considered or built that have big appetites for water. They include a $2 billion steel factory, a $16 billion liquid natural gas processing plant, and a $10 billion chemical plant. They will need much more water than the Hill Country rivers can supply, especially given the current consumption by other industries and hundreds of thousands of residents.
As water scarcity worsens upstream, port and city administrators are anxious to diversify. Pumping from coastal aquifers is not considered an option because of the risks, including land subsidence. As for the remaining options, Corpus Christi knows that whatever it chooses, it will be be expensive. So it is considering an outside-the-box idea. It’s looking to tap the bay or the Gulf with two desalination plants in order to provide water for industry. Last December, the City Council approved money for permit applications.
The proposal has drawn some opposition from residents concerned about the multi-billion dollar cost of construction, the multi-million dollar annual cost of electricity and operation, and the unsolved dilemma of how to safely dispose of the millions of gallons of waste brine produced by big desalination plants. In April, Corpus Christi applied for a $222 million loan from the State Water Development Board to build the first desalination plant.
Upstream in the Hill Country, the scale may be smaller, but the same forces are at work: the imperative of economic expansion colliding with the necessity of resource conservation. With a fundamental resource like water, the reaction produces all manner of sparks and heat. The confrontations between wastewater plant developers and downstream residents are typically fierce.
For instance, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is considering permit applications from two Hill Country cities and six developers to build water treatment plants. The plants would discharge 1.6 million gallons of wastewater each day into surface streams. Such discharges contain nitrogen, phosphorous, and other chemicals that encourage algae blooms that are becoming more common in Hill Country rivers that have long been famous for their clarity and cleanliness. In another permit application, developers pledged their commitment to clean water, and critics countered that no matter how you treat it, wastewater won’t match the the purity and quality of spring-fed creeks, and so discharging treated water into spring water is a degradation of the resource.
Wrangling over development happens at the state level, as well. In a river basin neighboring the Hill Country, a subdivision developer sought to pour, each day, 500 thousand gallons of wastewater into a creek running through a natural area. Despite the objections of the director of the Texas Wildlife Department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved a draft permit. After a public outcry, the state environmental agency changed its regulations, prompting the developer to change its mind.
Back in the Hill Country, another battle is brewing over a $2 billion natural gas pipeline that its developer, Kinder Morgan, wants to build across the area from the Permian Basin to a terminal near Houston. In Texas, pipeline construction is essentially unregulated. The route of the 430-mile Permian Highway Pipeline is directly over the Hill Country’s sensitive limestone aquifers. David Baker’s Wimberley Valley Watershed Association joined Austin, several more cities, and a group of nonprofits in filing court motions that asserted two primary points:
First, they argued, if the pipeline leaks, it will pollute drinking water. Second, its route violates the federal Endangered Species Act because construction and operation will damage habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, an endangered songbird. In February, a federal district judge ruled against the bird argument and said Kinder Morgan could proceed.
But the water pollution case is active and expanding. On March 28, Kinder Morgan spilled 36,000 gallons of drilling fluid that drained into drinking water in Blanco County. The company did not notify county authorities or nearby homeowners, who discovered the contamination when cloudy, brown, and unusable water poured from their faucets.
The pushback to the Permian Highway Pipeline is coming from a number of sources. The Texas Railroad Commission has revoked permits for the pipeline citing concerns for groundwater, and it’s investigating complaints about erosion. In June, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association and the Trinity Edwards Springs Protection Association filed suit in federal court asserting that the March drilling fluid spill was a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The situation is not an isolated one. New gas and oil pipelines are under pressure across the United States. Cancelled installations in Kentucky and in the East mark the profound disruption of the industry due to unstable market forces.
Uncertainty, and public activism, are potent variables that challenge fast-growing communities when they weigh new development against environmental constraints. The water struggles across the Hill Country and much of Texas are essentially the same as those unfolding throughout the nation, wherever growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress, such as California, the Southwest, and the Rocky Mountain West. For that matter, the goal of economic growth and the reality of diminishing freshwater reserves are two vectors rapidly moving at odds almost everywhere on the planet, most notably China and India.
And what are these others doing? After four years of drought, California began to regulate groundwater. China has been addressing the threat of an water-driven economic crash with massive water projects, stringent efficiencies and the largest water-conserving solar and wind electrical generating industry on Earth. India remains bound by its devotion to the cultural objective of food production, and its groundwater levels are steadily declining in the northwest states most vital to the nation’s agriculture. For India’s 700 million farmers, water is free, and so is the electricity to pump that water from ever-lower depths.
Back in Texas, communities wrestle with the technical and political ramifications of residential wastewater, oil and gas pipelines, chemical spills, and the basic question of what their water future will be. The pressures, like the stakes, increase with time. In the next fifty years, Texas is expected to be home to over 50 million people. It has to figure out how to find enough water to keep them all safe, satisfied and thriving, from Joshua’s Well to the Corpus Christi Bay.
As Hays County Commissioner Lon Shell put it, “Groundwater is what western Hays County lives off of, and many of our residents out there rely on their groundwater for their daily lives. We don’t want to do anything or allow anyone to do anything to jeopardize that.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.