There is no doubt that a population boom is looming for Bell County and the rest of the state.
Between 2020 and 2070, Texas’ population is expected to increase from 29.5 million to 51 million — a 70 percent increase in just 50 years, according to the 2017 State Water Plan.
However, this growth is not guaranteed without one precious resource: water.
“We don’t want Texas to get into a situation where water is limiting growth and limiting economic opportunity here — and it could,” said Thomas Gerik, director of the Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple.
One potential solution to the state’s impending water woes is ASR, aquifer storage and recovery, which is a way to store water in an aquifer for future use.
However, ASR is not the answer to all of the state’s woes, said Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District in Belton.
“But if you were to look at the toolbox for Williamson and Bell County, it’s absolutely top of the list,” Aaron said, noting that ASR is a huge opportunity for Clearwater and Bell County.
Clearwater and its board of directors have been championing the concept of ASR, Aaron said. The groundwater conservation district is hoping to partner with Blackland for a feasibility study to determine if Bell County can use ASR.
What is ASR?
Traditionally, water has been stored in Texas in surface-water reservoirs. Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow Lake are two prime examples of this.
Belton Lake was completed in 1954 and cost more than $17 million, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
When Belton Lake was completed, then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson said, “This is important — make no mistake about it. Soil and water conservation ranks — or even outranks — the hydrogen bomb as the basic key to the future of America.”
Stillhouse Hollow Lake was completed in 1968 and cost more than $25 million.
While these two lakes were hailed as marvels of development for Texas during their time, more than 50 years later lawmakers have increasingly began looking toward new ways of storing water.
“We know with the population growth we’re going to be experiencing over the next 20, 30 years, there could be times that there’s not enough water in Lake Belton,” Gerik said. “Right now most of our water comes from those two lakes — Belton and Stillhouse Hollow. All the growth in Austin, Georgetown ... they have eyes on that water. They want to take that water and ship (it) down there.”
By storing water above ground, a large part of it evaporates every year, Gerik said.
“If we can put it underground in a safe way, then we reduce those evaporation losses,” he said.
And that’s exactly what aquifer storage and recovery accomplishes. Water is injected into an aquifer, where it is stored for later use, according to the 2017 State Water Plan, which was assembled by the Texas Water Development Board.
ASR cannot be used anywhere, though. The geographic conditions of an area will determine if ASR is feasible.
“This is not something that’s new,” June Wolfe, an associate research scientist at Blackland Research in Temple. “It’s been done in the past in a number of locations.”
When it comes to ASR, there are three strategies in use across the Lone Star State.
In El Paso, the city has used treated wastewater from the city’s water reclamation plant to recharge the Hueco Bolson Aquifer, according to a Texas House of Representatives report.
The water is put into a basin where it settles and percolates into the ground, Wolfe said. The water then travels through the ground for about three to five years where it ends up in a well field where El Paso will pump the water out and reuse it.
San Antonio uses a different strategy than El Paso. Since 2004, the city has operated one of the largest ASR projects in the United States. When the Edwards Aquifer produces excess groundwater — usually during periods of heavy rainfall — San Antonio takes the excess water and injects it into the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer for future use, according to the House ASR report.
Because the densities of the water from the Edwards and the Carrizo-Wilcox are different, the liquids do not mix. So, essentially, the water being stored in the Carrizo-Wilcox Aqufier is in a bubble, Wolfe said.
“Another way they describe that — and I just heard this recently — as building the walls of your tank,” Gerik said. “You have a tank when you pump that first water down there that’s kind of like your wall. You keep pumping water into the center of that and you keep those walls built.”
Kerrville began its ASR project in 1993.
“They pump water that they have purchased from the local river authority out of the Guadalupe River, they treat it and pump it into a local aquifer,” Wolfe said. “The questions there becomes: These are surface waters, they belong to all of us, we take it and put it down into the ground. Now who does that belong to?”
In Texas, groundwater is treated differently from surface water. The state owns most of the surface water, Gerik said. Groundwater, however, operates under the rule of capture.
“So if you can drill a well into an aquifer, you can pull out as much water as you can,” Gerik said.
In 1995, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality authorized Kerrville to take surface water from the Guadalupe River and inject it into the Lower Trinity Aquifer after treating it to drinking water standards, according to a House report.
After a legal battle — in which the Third Court of Appeals in Austin upheld that the city was putting the water to beneficial use — the 74th Legislature enacted a law that allowed the storage of surface water using ASR.
For example, if Kerrville pumps 100,000 gallons of water into its aquifer, the city can pull out that much water, Gerik said.
What about Bell County?
Research is needed to determine if ASR is even feasible in Bell County, Aaron said. It’s important to point out, Gerik said, that any use of ASR in Central Texas is still years away.
There are a plethora of questions that need to be answered.
A few questions Wolfe threw out that need to be answered include: Will there be enough surface water available to use ASR in the future? What about historical flow of water here? How does the weather compare to projected weather forecasts that include climate change? What about growth?
“Just the growth itself is going to increase the demand for water,” Gerik said. “We want to understand where we are now and be able to project where we could go in the future to see what is the feasibility of this.”
As for the weather, Gerik said, the cycles vary greatly in Texas going back and forth between drought and flood periods.
“Do we have enough water in the tank, Lake Belton, to be able to carry us through the drought periods?” the Blackland director said. “It wouldn’t take but one severe drought, I think, in this area where we run out of water that would discourage people from coming back to Texas or encourage people to leave. We don’t want that. Nobody wants that.”
About 80 percent of Bell County’s water comes from Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow Lake. The remaining 20 percent comes from the Trinity Aquifer and the northern edge of the Edwards Balcones Fault Zone Aquifer, Wolfe said.
“Keep in mind that the Edwards Aquifer is one that gets recharged fairly quickly,” Gerik said. “Almost all of the other aquifers in Texas are recharged very slowly. In fact, so slowly that we’re essentially just mining the water out. The only way long term we’re going to keep those aquifers viable is through means like ASR.”
A feasibility study would take Blackland eight to 10 months to complete, Aaron said.
If Bell County is found to be a suitable candidate for ASR, any potential projects will be funded through a variety of partnerships.
“Public-private investments are probably going to occur to make this happen,” Aaron said. “It cannot just be on the back of taxpayers.”
State Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, said ASR is a logical option for Bell County to review aquifer storage.
“If we do this, that means water doesn’t otherwise go down stream when we have those periods of excess water,” Shine said. “We can capture that water, we can maintain it and keep it for us.”
Bell County Commissioner Tim Brown said ASR is an alternative that needs to be considered in the long-term strategies for providing water here.
“We know we’re going to continue to grow. We know that we’re going to need more water. We know there are no easy solutions out there,” Brown said.
“I think the time will come that we’ll see some ASR programs here.”