Driving over the Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow dams, many folks might be tempted to think Central Texas is has drinking water aplenty.
It is a mistaken impression, according to local water experts as well as state and regional water planners. That water has been sold.
“When there is no drought and everything is going well, we don’t panic,” said Horace Grace, a water expert from Killeen. “But we need to get on top of this and get control of our water situation.”
The population of Texas is projected to increase from more than 28 million in 2018 to 40.5 million in 2050, according to the state demographer’s office. During the same time period, the demographer’s report projects Bell County could experience a 55 percent increase in population, from almost 360,000 to more than 557,000 residents.
Of course, everyone needs water to live. Between 2020 and 2070, statewide demands could increase around 17 percent while during the same period existing water supplies are expected to decline approximately 11 percent, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s 2017 State Water Plan.
“We need to get prepared now,” Grace said. “Water is a precious and finite resource we can’t live without.”
Grace said many people have misconceptions about the reservoirs that often are associated with sailing, fishing and parks.
Neither Belton nor Stillhouse lakes belong to Bell County; rather, they belong to the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Flood control, not drinking water supply, is their primary purpose.
“The rights to the water in the ‘conservation pool,’ which is potential drinking water, in both Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow have been sold [to surrounding municipalities],” Grace said. The proceeds pay back the federal government for construction and operational maintenance.
State, local leader
Grace is a native Texan with 18 years of experience in water management. He ran the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District in Bell County for 10 years.
He developed his passion about water after being appointed by former Gov. Ann Richards to the board of the Brazos River Authority in the 1990s. Grace later was tasked with helping the Texas Water Development Board create a water plan for the state.
An emergency can prompt swift action in the political arena.
“We’d had a drought, and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock realized we had to develop a plan to conserve Texas water,” Grace said.
Sixteen regions were developed, labeled alphabetically. Central Texas counties are included within the Brazos G Regional Water Planning Group.
Grace is the only African-American to have served on the Brazos G Regional Water Planning Group, Groundwater Management Area 8, and the Brazos River Authority’s in-stream flow task force.
“I was available to serve,” he said.
“The state of Texas is one of the leaders in water planning among the western states,” Grace said. “The difficulty is putting teeth in the plans. Try telling a Texan what to do,” he added with a laugh. “You’re not going to get elected with legislation like that so it’s a hot potato.”
Texas’ 50-year plan applies to both surface and groundwater and is updated every five years. Regional planners determine the amount of water available, pinpoint demand, identify shortages and develop strategies to help those areas, Grace said.
Bell County is in pretty good shape. “Temple, Belton and Killeen have reserve water beyond the 50-year horizon. They had the foresight to buy water out of the reservoirs when it was still available,” Grace said.
Other municipalities did not invest in water, and the consequences might be felt in the future.
“One day there could be a big fight when some municipalities have overages and others have shortages ... there is not a law in place to deal with that situation so city planners need to be talking about this already,” Grace said.
Of course, the takeover in 2015 of the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District by the City of Georgetown is still a hot topic in Killeen. “Killeen has a lot of interest,” Grace said.
“Killeen and Bell County both should have been aware that Chisholm had financial problems and could have made an offer to buy them.”
In December 2015, the city of Georgetown acquired the 13,000 acre-feet of groundwater rights in the Chisholm Trail Special Utility District. Many well water users are concerned about the drawing down of the delicate aquifers that are slow to recharge and are used by many.
Central Texas counties are in Groundwater Management Area 8, which includes the Trinity and Edwards aquifers. In Bell County, Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District employees use computer modeling to keep track of the amount of water in the aquifers.
Clearwater allows only so much water to be pumped, based on the “desired future condition” for each aquifer, or how low the aquifer safely can go.
It’s all about being neighborly.
“In areas without a groundwater conservation district, a landowner can take as much groundwater as he wants, at the expense of neighbors,” said Dirk Aaron, general manager of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District. He has managed the district for seven years.
The law of the land in Texas is “full right to capture,” which gives the person with the biggest straw the right to water beneath, regardless of neighbors’ needs. In regions with groundwater conservation districts, “modified right to capture” is the law, Aaron explained. “The private property’s owner right to use groundwater is still in place, just not at the expense of neighbors.”
Clearwater encourages applicants to recapture, recycle and reuse water. “We haven’t had combative applications but we’ve had disagreements that have forced us to find balance between the needs of the business and the long-term needs of neighbors,” Aaron said.
Clearwater is managing aquifer pumping so that in 2070, at least 70 percent of the current groundwater will still be there.
However, Aaron is concerned that because aquifers do not correspond to county lines, “over-the-top excessive pumping” in Williamson County eventually will affect Bell County citizens.
“Statewide, the biggest issue is finding balance between property rights through groundwater conservation districts while still affording the landowner or industry that wishes to produce,” Aaron said.
Grace and Aaron agree that over-pumping is a contentious and political issue.
“If we don’t control that water we’d be sucking up mud in a few years.” Grace said. “People have to keep going deeper and deeper to find water. Because of lack of regulations we’ve allowed people to pump them too low, and it takes a long time to replenish.”
Managing surface water by establishing environmental flow standards is another priority for water planners.
“We’ve already done a lot of damage in the state of Texas, so we’re trying to pass laws to limit the amount of water that can be taken out of the Brazos River,” Grace said.
The goal is to get the river back to its condition in the early 1900s, he said. The state of Texas owns surface water and can be used by the public. Permits must be obtained by the TCEQ to “impound, divert or use state water,” but the state always owns the water, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
“We need to justify how much water is left in the river as it flows all the way to Freeport into the Gulf of Mexico,” with the goal of keeping it ecologically healthy.
Already species of fish and mussels have become endangered along the Brazos River because of people taking too much water out of the river.
“For fish to spawn it has to move at a certain cubic feet per second,” Grace said. “Everything is connected, it’s amazing.”