Once again, much of Central Texas finds itself in a drought.

An extremely dry fall has led to a rainfall deficit of 3 inches for the year, leaving Belton and Stillhouse lakes nearly three feet below their normal levels — and they’re still dropping.

As of Friday, the United States Drought monitor placed much of Bell County in the D2-Severe Drought category, with the remainder of the county labeled as being in D1-Moderate Drought.

With water use increasing in the fast-growing Central Texas region and available water resources dwindling, a water shortage is likely — and possibly sooner rather than later.

A study by Virginia-based RKG Associates Inc., presented to the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce this week, projected the Killeen area — which includes Harker Heights, Nolanville and Fort Hood, could have a population of more than 277,500 by 2035.

The Texas Water Development Board has even higher numbers for its countywide population projections. The board’s 2021 Regional Water Plan estimates Bell County’s population will reach 433,600 by 2030 and soar to 497,800 by 2040.

However, there is only so much water to go around.

The Brazos River Authority has parceled out water rights to Belton Lake and Stillhouse Hollow, with some local cities’ contracts extending up through 2070.

But will there be enough water to keep up with the area’s burgeoning demand — especially if drought conditions are the norm rather than the exception over the next five decades?

Obviously, water is a finite resource, and something must be done to capture, conserve and control as much of it as possible.

And a forward-looking group of Bell County officials are to be commended for taking an important step in that direction.

As reported in the Killeen Daily Herald and Temple Daily Telegram recently, a coalition of local governments — Bell County, Temple, the Brazos River Authority, the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, Bell County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 and Fort Hood — are taking part in a study to determine the feasibility of storing excess water underground. The process, called aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, would capture thousands of gallons of rainfall and pump it into the Trinity and Edwards aquifers, which are situated beneath Bell County.

The recovered water would serve to augment the area’s existing surface water and ground water supply — especially important in times of prolonged drought.

Bell County Judge David Blackburn — who previously served as city manager of both Killeen and Temple — advanced the idea of a local study after talking with Dirk Aaron, the general manager of Clearwater Underground Water District.

Both officials well understand the need for water conservation and replenishing underground water tables — especially in the wake of the crippling 2011 drought, which took a devastating toll on the county’s water resources. They, along with the other officials in the ASR study coalition, are to be commended for seeking a long-term solution to what no doubt will be a long-term challenge.

The ASR concept is already being employed by three Texas cities — San Antonio, El Paso and Kerrville. San Antonio’s ASR facility can pump up to around 120,000 acre-feet of excess water — the amount of water it takes to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot — into the Edwards Aquifer. That equates to a four-month water supply for the Alamo City.

The process has also gained traction in Corpus Christi, Victoria and New Braunfels, which are in the process of establishing ASR facilities.

With a growing demand on the region’s available water resources, it makes perfect sense for county officials to pursue the ASR option for Bell County and its residents.

The process has been advanced by some water experts for years. Back in 2016, Horace Grace, the former president of the Clearwater Underground Water District, noted in a Herald article on the subject that WCID-1 had rights to 69,000 acre-feet of water in Stillhouse Hollow Lake, but were only using about half of it. He cited the loss of surface water to evaporation and suggested putting the district’s excess 30,000 acre-feet back into the ground.

At the time, WCID-1’s then-district manager, Ricky Garrett, called the process impractical and too expensive. Three years later, the district is taking part in the ASR study.

Apparently, aquifer storage and recovery is an idea whose time has come.

However, it’s not a given that the process will work here.

INTERA, an Austin-based consulting firm that examines natural resources is conducting a multiphase study to assess whether the process will be viable in the county.

The first phase is underway, at a cost of $25,000.

Data from a 2018 Clearwater study will serve as the basis for INTERA experts to select up to 10 sites that could be a good fit for an ASR facility.

Several factors will be evaluated at each site, such as how well water passes through an aquifer; water levels and quality; injection rates; sand bed thickness; and interference from nearby wells.

It sounds complicated, but the science of underground water storage is just that — a science.

Still, while the variables surrounding the potential site selection are complex, the underlying principal of ASR is simple.

As reported in the recent FME News Service article, the process creates a bubble underground.

There are three layers to the bubble. The native groundwater is on the outside of the bubble. There is a buffer zone in the middle layer where the existing water will mix with the stored water. In the center of the bubble near a pump, is the stored water.

As an INTERA scientist commented, the ASR concept is proving to be “a very proven technology,” and its overall cost is lower than developing a new water source.

Hopefully, ASR will be a viable option for Bell County. If so, it could prove to be an essential part of a regional water conservation and management strategy that will benefit generations of Central Texans for years to come.

The importance of obtaining and maintaining adequate water supplies as the county continues to grow and develop simply can’t be overstated.

Whether ASR can be used locally has yet to be determined. But even if it is employed, it must be integrated into a larger resource-management strategy, as Blackburn noted.

And Blackburn hit the nail on the head when he observed, “Nothing else matters if you don’t have water. That’s the big picture answer. Water is the preeminent issue for all of us,”

The county judge and other local officials who have joined to launch the regional ASR study deserve credit for taking a long view of the area’s potential water challenges, well before a crisis presents itself.

This is a great opportunity to make a lasting difference for our region —and we must not let it go down the drain.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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