Texas Water Journal Forum reunites key players in Edwards Aquifer dispute

Nearly 60 years ago, a tug-of-war began between competing interests battling over use of the Edwards Aquifer. The recent Texas Water Journal Forum reexamined this dispute by reuniting those who worked to resolve it.   

The third Texas Water Journal Forum, “History of the Edwards Aquifer Dispute: A view from the trenches,” was held Jan. 20 and centered on the conflict of environmental, municipal and agricultural interests in the Edwards Aquifer during the 1990s, at the height of the conflict.

The forum was hosted by Texas State University’s Department of Geography and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and was attended by approximately 140 people.

Although much of the struggle over use of the Edwards Aquifer occurred in the 1990s, events leading up to the dispute can be traced back to the record drought of the 1950s. Dr. Robert Gulley, a Texas Water Journal editor, kicked off the forum by providing a detailed background.

Municipal and agricultural use of the aquifer, alongside the drought, caused Comal Springs to dry up for five months in 1956. Reduced spring pulses ultimately lead to five species being listed as endangered or threatened in Comal and San Marcos springs between 1967 and 1980.

Over-pumping of the aquifer began to further threaten these aquatic species’ habitat and subsequently led to suits filed by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) and later the Sierra Club, he said.

“It’s my sense that at the base of the Edwards Aquifer dispute is the rule of capture,” Gulley said. Deciding how to address competing interests would be an issue for many years to come, he said.

Following Gulley’s introduction, panels consisting of many of the controversy’s key players reflected on their roles in searching for a resolution.

Panelists discussed significant legal actions taken, including GBRA’s decision to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to enforce the Endangered Species Act, protecting endangered and threatened species in the area.

“We had to do something,” said John Specht, former GBRA general manager.

Former Texas Water Commission chairman John Hall recalled trying to reconcile clashing ideas about managing the aquifer. “If we could get some key players to agree on how the aquifer could be managed, that would be progress,” he said.

The Sierra Club then filed an additional lawsuit in 1995 to protect threatened and endangered species in the area.  Federal District Judge Lucius D. Bunton III ruled in favor of the Sierra Club. The ruling encouraged the development of a habitat conservation plan, which was eventually approved in 2013. This plan protects the aquifer’s spring flows and saved the eight threatened and endangered species that rely on the aquifer and downstream ecosystems, according to Dr. Todd Votteler Texas Water Journal editor-in-chief.

Bunton also directed the Texas Legislature to establish adequate pumping controls for the aquifer. In 1993, the Legislature created the Edwards Aquifer Authority to regulate groundwater pumping.

The second panel, moderated by Votteler, consisted of attorneys on both sides of the landmark Sierra Club v. Babbitt case and legislators who created the Edwards Aquifer Authority in response to Judge Bunton’s ruling. 

Stuart Henry, former counsel to the Sierra Club, said Bunton “did what any judge would have done.”

Panelists also related the discussion to current events and future water issues in the state. Russell Johnson, McGinnis Lochridge & Kilgore partner and former counsel for the city of San Antonio in Sierra Club v. Babbitt and Sierra Club v. City of San Antonio, and Dr. Ken Kramer, former director of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, moderated the final panel of state representatives Lyle Larson, Doug Miller and Tracy King

The representatives reflected on what was learned from the dispute and what it means for Texas today. They also speculated on the potential impact of the pending U.S. Voting Rights litigation over the makeup of the Edwards Aquifer Authority board of directors.

Larson said the dispute is responsible for many of the strategies addressing water issues that San Antonio is implementing today, such as desalination.

The representatives agreed that water is something that will continue to shape regional and state legislation and economics. Larson stressed the importance of uniting as a state to address these issues. “We are all Texans,” he said. “Water issues are regional, but we need to look statewide.”

The Texas Water Journal is published jointly by the Texas Water Journal, a nonprofit organization, and Texas Water Resources Institute. To read the journal, visit texaswaterjournal.org.

Guest Author

Sara Carney

By Sara Carney

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