People have been talking a lot about water recently, especially Williamson County folks who depend on well water in the Florence area.
“It’s not out of the ordinary to have wells drop in a severe drought like this, when there is a really terrific shortage of groundwater,” said John Fisher, a Bell County commissioner, who lives in southern Bell County near the Williamson County line.
As of July 10, most of Williamson County is classified as abnormally dry, with a portion in the northern part of the county in a moderate drought, according to the drought report and map released every Tuesday by the National Integrated Drought Information System at Drought.gov. Most of Bell County is in a moderate drought, with a patch of severe drought in the eastern portion of the county. A portion of western Bell County is not listed as being in a drought, but is classified as abnormally dry.
The Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, which monitors the Edwards and Trinity aquifers in Bell County, recommends a voluntary 10 percent reduction in usage from the Trinity.
In Williamson County, the Trinity aquifer is being taxed by both residential and industrial use.
Joe McDearmon, owner of Hill Country Water Well Drilling Services in Briggs, has been digging and repairing wells in Williamson County for 32 years.
McDearmon said he works on wells near Florence, and recently has seen people having issues with shallower wells but wells that are dug 800-900 feet into the Trinity are not going dry.
“There’s no doubt it’s down,” he said on Thursday. “We’re digging to the same depth but the volume of water produced is not what it used to be. We’re setting pumps deeper because of draw-down (of the aquifer). There’s only so much water.”
McDearmon said the average household well pump is around 10 gallons a minute. Well pumps he’s installed for aggregate quarries and asphalt plants near Salado have been capable of pulling 60 gallons a minute “at least.”
“The quarries use a lot of water, and there are a lot of them,” he said. “Regular households don’t use that much water.”
Water was a paramount concern earlier this year surrounding the new Asphalt, Inc. LLC aggregate quarry and asphalt plant site just east of Florence at 10957 Farm-to-Market 487 in Williamson County. The site became fully operational as of March 29, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
One resident who lives near the plant has noticed a change in his well’s production, and added that his neighbor has had to incur the costs of installing a rainwater collection system because of a dry well.
“I haven’t had to drop my pump because I can’t go any lower,” said Bob Faulkner, on Thursday. “We just have to be really frugal with our water.”
Faulkner anticipates further problems, especially when another severe drought happens like in 2011. “If the well goes completely dry we’ll have to start buying water from somebody or spend thousands of dollars on a rainwater collection system. I don’t know what our next move will be. I’ll wait and see how it plays out.”
Faulkner and other residents tried to prevent the asphalt plant from happening, have kept monitoring the situation and are trying to form an underground water conservation district similar to Bell County’s Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District.
Since May 26, at least 11 residents near Florence have posted on a Facebook page created in protest of the asphalt plant that wells on their properties were either going dry or they were having pumps lowered to reach water.
“The whole purpose of our protest was water; the rest of it is just inconvenience,” Faulkner said.
He said the site is being kept clean and that rock truck drivers are driving slower past his house than they were before. Faulkner said in a previous Herald story that he understands the country’s need for asphalt products as people demand new and improved roadways.
“They’re not evil, I just wonder about the location,” Faulkner said. “I have no real complaint about the plant except they’re going to use up all our water.”
Misty Hood is another resident who lives near the plant. “I have several neighbors that had to drop their pumps or have had to hook up to city water,” she said. “I think the drought and the asphalt plant have all played a role in the water shortage.”
Although people have been dropping their well pumps recently, Fisher said it’s difficult to draw a causal link between underground water levels declining and the asphalt plant’s daily usage.
“We’re in a severe drought situation right now, so it’s likely a combination of the summertime drought and people’s usage, and it’s unclear how much water the plant is using,” Fisher said. “Well draw-downs are not unique to the area (around the Asphalt, Inc. plant).”
It is unclear how much water is being used at the site. The Herald was told the asphalt plant’s operations manager was not available and the state does not monitor water usage at asphalt plants and aggregate quarries.
TCEQ permits allow for four wells to be dug at the Asphalt, Inc. site near Florence. As of February, two wells had been dug to be used for dust control, an asphalt plant official said at the time. It is not known if all four wells have been dug.
The four wells combined are capable of taking as much as 63 million gallons of water out of the Middle Trinity Aquifer in a year, according to one study. The projections are based on the maximum usage permitted by the TCEQ.
One well is capable of producing 100 gallons of water a minute, according to the study.
The dry west
Dan Gattis is a former state representative and a member of the board of directors of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Gattis sits on the water policy subcommittee because he has seen water issues affecting Central Texans.
The Gattis ranch is east of Georgetown in Williamson County, and he gets water, sourced underground, through a utility company. His land has a creek and he has not experienced water shortages on his ranch, but he is aware of stresses on the aquifer that lies beneath the rolling countryside.
“We’re fairly blessed but a lot of people aren’t,” Gattis said.
West of I-35, Gattis is hearing of instances of demands on water going up and wells getting depleted as a result. “And if you have a high-volume pumper close to you, you will be affected because it causes the water table to change,” he said.
Meanwhile, East Texas is doing all right.
“The farther east you go it’s not as big an issue because they get more rain,” Gattis said. “But here and farther west the demands on aquifers has increased quite dramatically.”
Gattis’ children are seventh-generation ranchers in the county.
“We’ve seen the changes through the years. It’s growing,” he said. “It might not be in mine or my kids’ lifetimes, but our area will be all houses at some point. It’s going to happen.”
Folks are flocking to Texas and everyone brings their water needs along.
“People want to come here for the good business climate, low taxes and opportunities, but when you have this rate of growth it causes stress on our infrastructure and rural communities pay the biggest price,” Gattis said. “I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.”
Gattis said many small communities have tried to plan for water shortages.
“But Texas relies a lot on groundwater,” Gattis said. “It’s a constant struggle between the needs of agriculture, industry and residents.”
Everything depends on that wet stuff that falls from the sky.
“It all goes back to rain,” Gattis said. “We’ve gone to (using) groundwater to ensure against drought, but the aquifers can’t recharge at all if there’s no rain.”
Maybe it’s human nature to blame the neighbor.
“You don’t always know what the cause is,” Gattis said. Speaking about the Florence area, he said the cause is probably a combination of population growth with increased demand, and the asphalt and aggregate industry that has set up shop across the county.
Over the past two decades, Williamson County residents have seen a 171 percent increase in the number of air quality permits related to the aggregate industry, with 14 permits effective in 1998 compared to 38 in 2017, according to data supplied by Andrew Keese, TCEQ media relations specialist.
He said seven new permits were issued in that county between January and the June 30.
The aggregate industry includes concrete batch plants, rock and concrete crushing plants and hot mix asphalt plants.
“What’s interesting is that you have people who moved to the country 10 years ago and put in a well that is now dry, and they blame it on the ‘new’ people who just moved in,” Gattis said. “It just goes back to the sheer number of people: It’s a combination of everybody over the years.”
No state monitoring
The TCEQ does not monitor operations or water usage at quarry sites but responds to complaints and comments, Keese said, previously.
“The TCEQ does not have jurisdiction to regulate mines, quarries, any associated blasting or to conduct any investigation of mines, quarries or blasting,” he said. Quarries are excluded from the “definition of a facility” in the Texas Clean Air Act.
People who live around Florence have talked in online forums about forming an underground water conservation district in Williamson County, but it has proved to be a difficult process.
Groundwater conservation districts can be created by the Texas Legislature or by the TCEQ through a local petition process, according to the Texas Water Development Board. There are nearly 100 groundwater conservation districts across the state, according to the water board.
Even without the management of a groundwater conservation district, the little guy can make a difference through small changes, such as taking shorter showers, installing low-flow faucets and toilets, and investing in a modest rainwater collection system.
“The biggest message is that we all need to be conserving and preserving as much water as we can,” Fisher said.
McDearmon said he’s seen wells dug for tanks stocked with fish.
“I think we need to be more conservative with our water,” he said. “I’d rather have water for my house than a fish pond.”
Herald reporter Artie Phillips contributed to this report.