Suppliers willing to face tough challenges
opposition” to approving the agency’s permits, as well as to landowners who wanted to lease their water to the agency. Others worried that there wouldn’t be enough water left for local landowners.
Sengelmann said the district’s board unanimously voted to approve the agency’s permits, but only with some concessions, such as requiring the agency to pay $309,000 to a fund meant to mitigate the effects of dropping water levels in district wells, and monitoring water levels in four of the 15 wells the agency expects to drill.
Austin, for its part, isn’t in the groundwater game, thanks to a massive water contract signed in 1999 with the Lower Colorado River Authority that virtually assured the city water through 2050.
San Antonio is not as well placed. Between the 1960s and 2005, because of political forces, money pressures and environmental concerns, the board of the city’s water system or city voters rejected several reservoir projects or groundwater deals.
If faced with a drought on par with the one that devastated Texas in the 1950s, the San Antonio Water System wouldn’t have enough water by 2017 if it didn’t secure any new water sources, said Greg Flores, a spokesman for that water system.
For about five years, the water system has pumped up to 6,400 acre feet of water annually from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, Flores said. A second project expected to go online next year will ultimately funnel up to 17,200 acre-feet of water annually from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to San Antonio, enough for 60,000 homes, Flores said. The water system has spent 10 years and $100 million on the plan, among eight recommended projects in the state’s water plan to transport at least 10,000 acrefeet of groundwater each year at least 25 miles.
Over the past couple of decades, efforts to get permission to pump and ship groundwater, by private investors in Austin or by city-owned utilities, have failed more often than not, usually because water-rich areas guard the resource jealously.
In the late 1990s, San Antonio Water System aimed to pipe water from the Rockdale area, about 60 miles northeast of Austin, from a tract belonging to Alcoa. A community group from Milam County and surrounding counties rallied to oppose the project, which they feared would rob them of their own well water. The project eventually fell apart as pipeline costs spiraled into the tens of millions of dollars.
But as the resource becomes more valuable, water suppliers appear undaunted.
The Lower Colorado River Authority board in August announced that it is in negotiations to buy the 34,000-acre Alcoa tract. The tract’s chief prize: groundwater potential.
In 2011, water supply company BlueWater Systems completed construction of a 53-mile pipeline from Burleson County, clearing the way for deliveries to the city of Manor and a handful of utility districts and water supply corporations in eastern Travis County. BlueWater pays roughly $1 million a year for the right to export 70,993 acre-feet; last year the company exported 580 acre-feet.
The water game is about to flow faster. The Lost Pines groundwater district, which regulates water in Bastrop and Lee counties, ended a moratorium in November on new groundwater permits. Beginning in January, it will take up permit requests for more than 100,000 acre-feet, much of it for export to the Texas 130 and I-35 corridors, according to Lost Pines general manager Joe Cooper.
He said the district will likely approve 25 to 50 percent of the requests, which come from public utilities such as the LCRA to private water marketers like End-Op and Austin-based Forestar Group Inc.