3 lessons from a Texas groundwater district on managing during drought

The Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District in central Texas urges residents to “please protect your aquifer by limiting water use.” The district manages groundwater in Hays County, Texas, one of the top five fastest-growing counties in the U.S.

Due to drought, the district has imposed a 20% curtailment on groundwater pumping districtwide and a 30% curtailment in a 39 square-mile region within the district that includes the iconic Jacob’s Well spring, the second-largest underwater cave in Texas and a popular tourist destination.

This curtailment strategy is relatively new for the district and is the result of a cooperative stakeholder process to protect Jacob’s Well and prevent rural domestic drinking water wells from going dry.

The Hays Trinity district is now featured in the first of a series of EDF case studies that provides information on how different groundwater conservation districts across Texas are proactively managing groundwater to protect its long-term viability and landowners’ rights to groundwater. Here are three key takeaways:

1. Create a science committee to understand groundwater challenges.

In 2018, the Hays Trinity district created a scientific technical committee of groundwater scientists to gain a better understanding of how declining groundwater levels affect wells and springflow from Jacob’s Well and to inform future policy.

Jacob’s Well. (Photo credit: Jacob Croft Botter).

In 2019, the committee completed its evaluation and determined that flow to Jacob’s Well was constrained to a specific area and recommended creating a groundwater management zone to more effectively manage groundwater there. The committee also provided more clarity on how water dynamics vary significantly in different areas along a fault within the region.

Because the committee concluded reducing pumping during drought periods would increase springflows, it recommended drought curtailments and a prohibition on new operating permits within the management zone.

2. Engage the public in local decision-making.

The next step for the district was to determine the level of public support for the management zone recommended by the science committee.

To do that, the district created a stakeholder task force, which included Hays County commissioners, well owners, water supply corporations, business owners and developers. The task force held more than 15 professionally facilitated meetings, leading to the adoption of guiding principles.

The principles included an acknowledgement that the economic health of the region and residents’ property values depend on clean, healthy water and aquifers.

At the end of the process, the task force also made consensus decisions on the science committee’s recommendations, which were then turned into rules and approved by the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District Board in March 2020. By proactively managing groundwater, the Hays Trinity district in Texas is protecting its long-term viability and landowners’ rights to groundwater. Click To Tweet

3. Create pumping rules to protect groundwater supplies.

Following the task force’s recommendations, the board created a 39 square-mile management zone in which rules prohibit new large pumping permits but allow waivers in certain circumstances.

The board also adopted new rules that trigger pumping reductions when flow in Jacob’s Well falls to certain levels and the district board declares the appropriate drought stage, which is what has happened recently.

But the board’s work is hardly finished. The board has recognized that to proactively manage limited groundwater resources, it needs a sustainable source of funding in the future and is exploring legislation to create a new funding stream.

While funding remains a challenge, the district’s progress to date clearly demonstrates that a combination of sound science and robust stakeholder input can be successfully employed to develop management tools that advance protections of valuable groundwater resources.

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