Water Resource Management

Posted: June 22nd, 2009 under Activities, Water.
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We happen to be in a county that chose to emphasize development over conservation, which has resulted in a water shortage here even greater than the climate would cause on its own.  (It’s ironic that the best-known history of the county is titled Land of Good Water.)

For those whose county governments haven’t yet destroyed their water resources…here’s how it worked in our case.

The county encouraged (with tax breaks for industry and developers) rapid and uncontrolled development, initially with no restrictions on well-drilling or amounts pumped.   Thus “on the cheap” developers sold former ag land as “ranchettes” of a few acres each, and every owner dug a well and put in a septic tank because there were no utilities supplied.   Water tables for shallow wells declined steeply as these private wells depleted the resource near the “ranchette” developments.  Initially, wells farther away were still productive.

Development created impervious surfaces that reduced infiltration and increased dirty runoff: the widening of existing roads, construction of new, wider roads, including regional high-speed tollways, construction of new commercial zones with acres of asphalt parking lots and large buildings, and so on, all reduced the area in which rainwater could recharge shallow aquifers on which the springs supporting local creeks depend.  Developers also channelized, diverted, and in some cases filled in existing streams (changes in the law under the Bush Administration permitted developers to fill in seasonal streams.)   The water table of rechargeable aquifers dropped, springs dried up, small-stream (and later, large-stream) flow decreased in normal weather, but floods increased in heavy rain events.

A major resource in this county is stone (half of it sits on limestone or sandstone with shallow soil over it; the demand for stone for facing houses in high-end developments and for all other uses rose, and more and more former ranchland turned into quarries.   Our county had one of the fastest growth rates in the country (as did a few others near Austin) with great demand for new housing and commercial building.   As quarries expanded and multiplied, this disrupted the larger water resource in multiple ways.    More acres of land (thousands of acres in the western half of the county) were and are utilized as quarries, disrupting former  shallow/rechargeable aquifers.   Not only are volumes of porous rock removed, which had water in it and would hold water in future (the “water habitat”) but exposure of the neighboring stone to the hot, dry air sucks water out of what is left into the air.  Underground streams and caves are disrupted, opened to the air (which today, for instance, is already 100F and climbing.

Quarries also use water, as most of them have water-cooled stone saws.    Water discharged from a quarry operation may or may not be discharged in a way that allows it to re-enter the aquifer.  As a result, rural residents dependent on wells have seen their wells decline by 50-70 feet per year in the past three years.    Within a mile of a quarry, springs dry up, streams quit flowing, and well-water levels drop.

The person managing a small property for either agriculture or wildlife management has no recourse under present conditions.    Landowners must pay to have their wells bored deeper, to add the pipe.  If their livestock or wildlife find no water in the old creek, if they have no water in their well…the county will get more tax money if they sell out to a developer.

Arguments aimed at protecting the existing resource are always framed (by the county government, developers, and local industries) as an issue of “progress” v. “sentimentality.”   Their ‘solutions’ to Texas water crisis always seem to involve piping in someone else’s water from somewhere else, not conserving what’s here.  (Austin is an exception, but even Austin won’t–or can’t–get sufficiently tough to stop commercial enterprises from using too much water on exotic landscaping and letting a good chunk of that fall in the street.)   The Texas governor continues to tout large surface reservoirs as the solution to the state’s water problem, in spite of the obvious fact that in dry years, millions of acre feet of stored water are lost to evaporation in our fierce summers.   He–and many others–are strongly opposed to setting real limits on water use, and looking for ways to protect the resource for the future.

Adding to the statewide problem (and something that all “flat coast” states will soon share) is the sea-level rise predicted with continued global warming…as salt-water moves inland, it will also move underground, contaminating what are now a few coastal fresh-water aquifers (and displacing large number of people inland as well–all of whom need fresh water.)

Any small-scale land manager either is facing, or will face, some stupidity from his/her neighbors and local government on the matter of water resource management.  In some states, for instance, the very sensible practice of using collected rainwater for garden use is banned because  the water that lands on your roof belongs to someone else (!)    Here it’s legal (though not in all cities) but actively supported only in Austin as far as I know.  Yet extensive and well-planned rainwater harvesting can reduce both urban water use and urban flooding.

Wildlife managers have been using rainwater harvesting to supply wildlife guzzlers for years…for instance, in West Texas, where the desert bighorn sheep has been re-introduced successfully because it was possible to supply reliable water.   We use rainwater harvesting with purpose-built rain-barns and watering holes.

I was taught long ago in graduate school that water resource management is the key to land management.   “Manage the water, and the land will manage itself.”  (Almost, the prof then said.)    Hence our checkdams and gabions,  our planting of deep-rooted native grasses to hold the soil, trap silt and debris from the dirty water that flows across our land from the highway or someone else’s less-well-managed land.   But some things we–and other landowners–can’t control: we can’t prevent the development, the construction, that creates more impervious surface.   We can’t keep them from drilling more wells, or opening or extending a quarry.  When animals that used to live on that land lose habitat and move to our land–we have tough decisions to make (can our land handle that many more?)

Still, we can do our best to ensure that we manage the water we get–whether clean rain, acid rain, dirty flood runoff, etc–as well as possible, given our own acreage and slope.  And we can try (so far unsuccessfully in our case) to educate the idiots in office and vote them out if they won’t learn.


  • Comment by Marjorie Procter-Smith — June 25, 2009 @ 8:17 am


    Your story makes me glad we live in an “economically depressed” county–read “poor.” There is much hand-wringing on both the county and city level about the lack of tax income, and (since we live on a county road) we are heartily sympathetic to the need for money to maintain roads, pay police, and so forth. On the other hand, developers don’t have much interest in our open land, and I’m just as happy that we have more crushed rock (permeable) roads than paved (nonpermeable) roads in the county. Still, we have had water supply problems here, notably last year during the drought, when we were down to a thirty-day supply of water for the whole county. Yet the county now has agreed to sell water (OUR water) to two power plant companies who want to build natural gas power plants about three miles from our house. Out valiant ecological defenders at TCEQ have approved the air permits, even before an air monitor is put in next month (the first in our county, even though we are downwind from Big Brown, a hideous coal-burning power plant south of here). So it all ties together: financial need, water resources, politics (TCEQ being in the governor’s pro-business pocket) and, of course, what’s it all for? The wildlife don’t get a vote.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 25, 2009 @ 9:24 am


    You don’t find ecological defenders at TCEQ, of course, because they’re appointed or hired by the people who live in gated communities and get caught using illegal immigrant workers to maintain their pretty lawns and homes.

    County governments want more money not to maintain services, but to work themselves up to prominence in statewide conventions, for which they need to build themselves palatial offices, give themselves travel allowances, and ultimately, high salaries. Our county roads are crappy (since heavy rock trucks now make holes in them) but our county commissioners live the life of Reilly. You should see the succession of county buildings they’ve put up for themselves. Way back, when the first county offices outside Georgetown were put up (in the fastest growing town then, Round Rock) one county commissioner–without putting it to a vote even of other CCs–marched into the building under construction and told the builder to move a wall so *his* office would be “impressive for when I’m cutting deals with developers” and the county crisis center, which he considered unimportant, would have half what had been in the plans. I was writing for the paper at that time and I outed that plan, to his fury.

    You need new county commissioners. They got elected; they can be un-elected next election, if you can convince enough people that selling water you don’t have–that people and livestock (let alone wildlife) need–is stupid and wrong.

  • Comment by Marjorie Procter-Smith — June 25, 2009 @ 10:18 am


    I’m thrilled that the EPA is taking on TCEQ at last, according to a story yesterday in the DMN (a new sheriff in DC helps), but you are quite on target that the big deal is local. Our county commissioner was the only one on the commissioners’ court who voted against selling water to the proposed power plants. The residents of his district organized to oppose the power plants, and he listened. (We hired an environmental lawyer to argue our case before TCEQ, too, and I think that made some impression) He was ousted in the very next election. On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that the county commissioners are not living palatially on their salaries–yet. You may well have it right, though, that they want to attract new business to the county so that they CAN vote themselves big ole salaries.

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 25, 2009 @ 12:16 pm


    County Commissioners are human (though I prefer to think of them with horns and tails, they really are human.) When they get sneered at as backward hicks, they don’t like it. When they see other counties with bigger budgets, and they meet other county commissioners who drum into their heads the notion that “pro-business” brings in money and they’ll never have to worry about the budget again…and their own residents are complaining about the roads, the law enforcement, the VFD’s outdated equipment, the lack of a good EMS…and then some slick fellows show up (or not slick–companies have people who know how to fake “down home”) and explains with charts how bringing in business and development brings in money…county government turns into bobble-head dolls, nodding away like those disgusting things in the TV ads for toll roads around Austin. It suddenly makes sense to get rid of “unproductive” land you can’t get a big tax rise out of, and bring in something you can.

    For awhile.

    If property taxes weren’t the basis of county income and school income, we wouldn’t have the same dynamic, but it is and we’re stuck with it for now. And you get people moving in whose jobs then depend on the industry that’s destroying the land and water and air, so of course they vote for it–their jobs depend on it. (What happened in the Rockdale area when the aluminum company’s atrocious environmental record was dragged into court by EPA–all the company’s employees knew they had to support the company.)

  • Comment by Marjorie Procter-Smith — June 25, 2009 @ 12:28 pm


    Oh all too true, and too familiar. The power plants aren’t even approved yet, and the commissioners are already salivating over the tax windfall that we *might* get, and the jobs too (although after construction is complete, they won’t hire but a handful of people).

    And of course we (and many others in this area) moved out here precisely because it’s “unproductive,” i.e., we have wildlife, and can see stars at night, and it’s quiet, and so on. To say nothing of the families who have lived on this land for generations, are raising their children, and their livestock, and supporting themselves and their families on the land. And who are not at all convinced that two power plants in their back yard are going to do them a bit of good. The power generated by these plants, by the way, will not stay in Texas. So we sell our water and (maybe) our air and our peace for…what?

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 25, 2009 @ 12:37 pm


    For someone else’s comfort and security.

    What do you have in the way of media up there? In general, media love to “expose” misbehavior in officials, where they can pat themselves on the back for being good investigators. Selling away the water from a county that had only a 30 day reserve last year sounds like a possible “makes the evening news” thing to me. (Yes, the news media are owned by corporations so they rarely go after corporations, but you’ve got county commissioners…)

    And I can recommend a website that might suggest some useful ways to present your case:http://www.psandman.com/index.htm

    There’s a lot of material on this site, but if you go down the front page to the topical index, and look at the four kinds of risk communication, that’s a start. Farther down there are some specific comments on environmental activism, and why certain approaches create additional resistance.

  • Comment by Marjorie Procter-Smith — June 25, 2009 @ 5:48 pm


    Oh, this looks very helpful indeed. Actually, the local paper is entirely in the pro-business camp, to the point of not covering some events that have a bearing on the situation (like an organizational meeting in a neighboring town to protest the power plants). But if we could get the attention of the Dallas Morning News, who have lately cast themselves in the role of defender of the environment (funny, that, but I expect someone thinks it sells newspapers), we might have some hope. I’ll check out the resources on this web site. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Comment by elizabeth — June 25, 2009 @ 9:40 pm


    Think sound bites, with the most dramatic first. And don’t forget visual media. Pictures of dry creeks (though you’ve had more rain up there, I think, than we have) while the talking head says there’s plenty of water…good approach. Look critically at what they’re using, and find something similar. Have your side briefed on talking points, what to say and how, etc.

    Gotta go, the book in progress is yanking my chain as it nears the end.

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