Jam Up the Pump 

click to enlarge 20070131_025458_2_storyjpg
Oh well, shucks: Pictured just smaller than actual size, this rusty iron tube from the 1930s is the J-17 well, the legally recognized aquifer-level indicator.
To the outsider, it seemed as if this reporter was napping in the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s lobby last week. It’s actually a lesser-known journalistic technique: by dozing off, a writer may successfully disappear from the room, having left his digital voice recorder running. Like rainwater run-off, I was able to catch all the inside chatter between the water-pumping representatives idling about while the Authority’s board of directors conferred privately with their attorney.

A few weeks earlier Attorney General Greg Abbott had all but nullified the Authority’s authority to limit pumping from the Edwards Aquifer. While not exactly clueless, upon reviewing my recorder, I realized these “insiders” weren’t capable of much more than quoting Carlos Guerra at one another.

Guerra is simultaneously the San Antonio Express-News’s water columnist and in-house Ming-the-Merciless impersonator, and when Ming predicts the “water wars are about to kick off again,” you can bet his eyebrows that it’s time to dig your trenches. And we’re not talking irrigation here.

Eco-warrior, if you plan to fight in this battle, it’s time to kick off the Birkenstocks and pull on your floaties. You can drown in the 16-years of op-eds and legal filings behind the issue. I’ll do my best to distill it.


1. The 20 Gigaflush.

In Wikipedese, an acre-foot is “the volume of water necessary to cover one acre of surface area to a depth of one foot.” In terms the average H-E-B consumer can parse: that’s 325,853 milk jugs, plus a few tall glasses to spare. It’s what a single person uses in nine-years. Stay with me.

In 1993, the Sierra Club won a federal court decision to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be more mindful of all creatures endangered and obscure living in the springs fed by the Edwards Aquifer: the Texas Blind Salamander, the Toothless Blindcat, the Widemouth Blindcat, and a dozen others that don’t sound as disabled. So, the FWS recommended, in the forceful way only the federal government can, a series of pumping limitations to the Texas Legislature. In response, the Lege passed the Edwards Aquifer Act which created the Authority and told it to:

Make sure no more than 450,000 acre-feet of aquifer-pumping permits are issued each year, and ratchet that down to 400,000 by January 1, 2008; and

Make sure that landowners and everyone else who had historically drawn water from the aquifer, still got to.

As it turned out, all things calculated, these two numbers were mutually exclusive. The Authority was statutorily obligated to issue 99,000 acre-feet in pumping permits over the cap.

Now let’s say an average toilet uses about 1.6-gallons per flush (that’s making the unreasonable assumption that we’re all good little pissers, using the water-efficiency toilets recommended by the San Antonio Water System). The permits over the cap, then, equal about 20.2 billion flushes. (30 billion by 2008).

Henceforth we shall all refer to this incongruency as the 20 Gigaflush. Alert Ming the Merciless.


2. The Opinion Heard ’Round the Region

In order to dissolve the Catch-22, the Authority split the permits they’d issue into two kinds of pumping rights. “Senior” rights would be guaranteed, and all totaled, fall under the cap. The rest would be the 20-Gigaflush “Junior” rights which would be cut off during critical periods, as triggered by measurements at the J-17 Well. (If you’re curious, the J-17 well is located in a shack near Fort Sam Houston’s cemetery. It’s an 800-foot iron tube 6 inches in diameter that was built in the 1930s and is now rigged to a mish-mash of measurement technology from a variety of decades).

I would say something like, “Every war has its camel back-breaker,” but of course then I’d have a fistful of yellowcake smashed in my face. Still, this new water war does have its equivalent of the Franz Ferdinand assassination: a request for an opinion sent to the attorney general back in March.

To understand what an opinion is, brace yourself for an extended analogy.

Imagine Mom & Dad are out seeing The Pursuit of Happyness, leaving their two 9-year-old twins to fight over control of the Nintendo Wii. Johnny wants to play Call of Duty 3, but Jimmy’s already playing Madden NFL 07. So Johnny appeals to their 12-year-old sister, Jenny, saying that the Jimmy’s video game should fall under Mom and Dad’s prohibition on playing football in the house. Ever the goody-two-shoes literalist, Jenny agrees.

In this analogy, Jenny’s decision is an attorney general opinion, non-binding, but to be obeyed until overturned by their parents: Mom being the courts and Dad, the legislature. Johnny is Representative Harvey Hildebrand, co-chair of the Edwards Aquifer Legislative Oversight Committee.

So Hildebrand, on behalf of water interests in Kerrville and thereabouts (mostly irrigating farmers), challenged the Authority’s senior/junior scheme, and 10 months later, the attorney general agreed that they didn’t have the statutory power to split permits. All junior rights will now be treated as senior rights, and the Authority’s back to where they were a decade ago, grappling with the 20 Gigaflush.


3. The Battleground

Whereas the Authority was designed to contain these kind of disputes, now the battle will move to the Texas legislature.  No one is optimistic that the Authority will be able to meet the 400,000 acre-foot cap starting January 1, 2008. So, if one thing passes in the legislature this session, it’ll be a deadline extension.

Senator Jeff Wentworth (say it like a duck-quack, “Weahnt-Werrrth”) is floating a plan to rinse the whole problem away by raising the cap to include the 20 Gigaflush, with provisions for limiting pumping during drought periods. The conservationists at the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance aren’t happy with that idea, according to Executive Director Annalisa Peace, but there’s no consensus yet about another option. The Sierra Club would rather see the Legislature keep the caps, and further empower the Authority to either cut permits proportionately across the board or just straight-up buy the permits off the holders. Water pumpers probably won’t support a buy-back scheme; it’d limit their pumping, and ultimately, they’d be shouldering the bill. It’d be like buying it off themselves since the money will likely come from a hike in permit-related fees.

No matter what the Legislature does, the whole issue is likely to go back to court, where I’ll be napping next to Ming the Merciless.

More by Dave Maass



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