Concerns as Austin Residents Drill New Wells
By NEENA SATIJA and JAY ROOT
Published: November 9, 2013
With what has been described as the worst drought in recorded history punishing parts of Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott found a way to keep watering his yard without risking fines or incurring huge monthly bills: he drilled his own well.
Attorney General Greg Abbott is among those who now have wells.
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He is not alone. Mr. Abbott, the leading 2014 candidate for Texas governor, has joined an exclusive and growing list of Austin residents. That list includes Ben Crenshaw, the golfing legend, and Mack Brown, the University of Texas football coach — residents who are coping with the drought and rising water bills by procuring their own private water supply underneath their land.
But the trend is worrying city leaders and environmentalists who fear that the rise in well drilling in rapidly growing Austin will negatively affect limited groundwater supplies, reduce the flow into rivers, and discourage conservation. “To me it’s just unconscionable. It’s a total disregard for the resource,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University. “What we should be doing is reducing our consumption of water.” (The Texas State University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)
Mr. Abbott installed his well a few months before the city began aggressively enforcing its lawn-watering restrictions, issuing at least $11,000 in fines since August. In Mr. Abbott’s upscale West Austin neighborhood of Pemberton Heights, where lawns are remarkably green, some residents have put up signs that read “Watering by Private Well” to avoid reproach at a time when most of Austin can water grass only once a week.
Mr. Abbott and others who have drilled their own wells say they have a right to the water under their land and contend it is a better way keep their grass green. After all, is it not preferable to put well water on the lawn instead of the scarcer treated drinking water provided by the city?
Austin has no power to stop landowners from drilling water underneath their own terrain in pro-property-rights Texas. It can only monitor the proliferation of private wells, which Jason Hill, an Austin Water Utility spokesman, said officials are doing “vigorously.”
The City Council recently passed an ordinance requiring water well owners to register with the city and pay an annual fee of $90. So far, 314 wells are on file, and dozens more residents have submitted their intent to drill, but the city estimates that more than 500 existing wells have yet to register.
“We’re taking steps to see that we’re conscious of those wells,” said Greg Meszaros, director of Austin Water Utility. But he was quick to add, “We’re respecting Texas property rights.”
The tension between property rights interests and the management of underwater resources is sure to increase in Texas politics as the drought continues to take its toll on the state’s surface water supplies. With the major reservoirs supplying Austin holding just over a third of their capacity, growing cities and industries are looking to groundwater to quench their thirst.
But the resource is hardly managed in some areas of the state, including Austin. While state legislators have set up nearly 100 entities elsewhere to regulate groundwater, Texas’ capital city goes by the century-old “rule of capture.” According to the rule, Mr. Abbott can pump the water under his land as much as he likes, even if a neighbor’s well were to go dry as a result — as long as he is not intentionally wasteful or malicious.
A Texas civil appeals court in El Paso famously upheld the rule of capture in 1954 for the father of Clayton Williams, a 1990 candidate for governor. Clayton Williams Sr. pumped so much water under his land that a popular Fort Stockton spring went dry, but justices ruled that he was within his rights because underground water supplies “belong to the landowner, and may be used by him at his will.”