Well things have been a little quiet on the blog. With the rain came a lull in water news, but that was short lived. We have a lot to discuss so let's get started. In the wake of the drought, many cities are still in the process of taking stock of changes that need to be made to protect against future dry years. Conservation is understood as increasingly important in the wake of shortage. Cities are busy encouraging limited outdoor watering, replacing pipes and raising water rates. One thing that the drought seemed to have shown many communities is the need to work together to protect this shared resource. Unfortunately, some cities have still a little learning to do.
A recent article in Austin Statesman had many of us water watchers talking. Apparently, a few Austinites are rebelling against watering restrictions by drilling their own water wells to maintain their lawns. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that the City of Austin isn't making a move to prohibit or limit this conduct. The article reports that 47 home wells were drilled last year with more on the way. Not surprisingly, the increase of well drilling closely tracks dry water years and many of the new well owners were known high water users. Due to the price of installing a well, they also seem to only be appearing in affluent areas of town.
This development again raises the issue of no extra water. The water that these individuals have the money to extract is being removed from an aquifer that is currently being used by existing users as well as the environment. From a policy perspective, there are also major concerns. The Austin Water Utilities is not tracking the water pumped from these wells and therefore is unable to monitor, profit, or encourage reduced usage for these properties. In fact, the well owners will have "unlimited" water use — at least as long as that resource is available. Why do they need all this additional water? Primarily for plush, green lawns. It is hard not to think of this as a tremendous waste. At the very least, if people want to water lawns they should have to pay the city or local municipality for the privilege like other citizens do.
The article states that homeowners argue that the wells reduce the demand on the highland lakes, but less usage also reduces demand just like many other homeowner have learned. Further, it is shortsighted to look at these water sources as independent systems. No aquifer has endless amounts of water. It is unclear what the aquifer impacts will be because it has never been studied. One this is known: once it is gone, it isn't available for anyone to use. Additionally, water is a community resource, which we should use as a community. In Buda, the city is fighting the a well permit application by an apartment complex. At least in Buda, the user has to obtain a permit which provides some oversight and opportunity for public participation unlike the wealthier areas of Austin.
Private wells are a move in the wrong direction and don't represent Austin's posted conservation values. The City of Austin should prohibit the unregulated drilling of these wells as other cities have done. Water isn't just for the big houses. It's for everyone.