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Climate Change, Corporate Development Threaten Groundwater Wells In Texas And Across US

Jeremiah Escamilla stows away a leafblower in a garage next to his family's new water storage tank.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Jeremiah Escamilla stows away a leafblower in a garage next to his family's new water storage tank.

Soft music rolled over the hills and through the mountain laurels, from a neighbor’s backyard to Trisha and Jeremiah Escamilla’s expensive new water storage tank. “Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground,” the Talking Heads’ David Byrne crooned.

About a year ago, 550 feet under the rocks, stones and rolling hills of their Bandera property, there was no water underground. The dry spell lasted two weeks, and the waitlist to get the well serviced was months-long.

“It was not fun having to go get jugs of water from my mom's and bring them back to flush toilets and stuff,” Trisha said.

There are a lot of mouths to water at the Escamilla household. The couple has two kids and three big dogs.

“It's scary,” Jeremiah said. “I mean, pretty much anything that breaks down out here, you have the ability to fix or something to do, but when the water goes dry 500 or 600 feet down, there’s nothing you can do. You can't just make water up here, you know. And then now you have a mortgage property that you're paying on that might not have any use.”

They purchased a water storage tank with enough room for an approximately two-week supply, and the well is pumping again. But Jeremiah is concerned that it’s only a matter of time before the water again runs dry, especially with the increasingly rapid development of the area — an influx of new homes and big box stores.

“Nobody can compete with the corporations that are coming out,” he said. “We're starting to get a lot of commercial property out here, and they can (dig deeper groundwater wells) than anybody because they have deeper pockets. They can dig far deeper.”

Development isn’t the only threat. As the climate changes, weather patterns are becoming more extreme.

Amir AghaKouchak is an engineering professor at University of California Irvine. He studies the extremes of climate change.

“Model projections of the future show that we may see events that you have never experienced, at least in our modern records,” he said.

That includes the potential for record-breaking drought in some areas.

“It is really hard to tell when and how droughts will change in the future,” he said. “But we know that even already we have had a significant impact on frequency and severity of drought events.”

The driving force behind global climate change is carbon emissions, but the specific changes in weather patterns will look different depending on where you live.

“Obviously, emissions can change our climate,” he said. “Changing climate means changing meteorology, and in some regions, it may result in more droughts, longer droughts, and in some other regions, maybe a wetter climate.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, climate change is actually making the Texas Hill Country — where the Escamillas live — a little wetter. But travel a bit to the west, and everything from the Big Bend region up to the Texas panhandle and over to California — most of the Western United States — have become drier.

Each dot represent a water well, and the shading represents the well depth. Wells tend to be deeper and more densely clustered along the High Plains, Edwards-Trinity and Gulf Coast aquifer systems.
Courtesy: Map by Debra Perrone and Scott Jasechko
Each dot represent a water well, and the shading represents the well depth. Wells tend to be deeper and more densely clustered along the High Plains, Edwards-Trinity and Gulf Coast aquifer systems.

So, how will climate change alongside continued development affect people who rely on groundwater wells?

Debra Perrone is an assistant professor at University of California Santa Barbara’s environmental studies program.

“(Groundwater) is a local resource, as well as a regional resource, as well as a global resource,” she said. “And so questions like this that you've just asked, it really depends. Because groundwater is very much a local resource in this context.”

Her team uses big data to get a better picture of where groundwater wells are, and why people use them.

“I agree with Deborah. Both matter,” said Scott Jasechko, Perrone’s collaborator and colleague at UCSB.

He said drought and human activity are often linked. Drought, of course, means groundwater isn’t replenished as quickly when it’s used.

“Now, on the other side, droughts can also lead to an increased reliance on groundwater,” he said. “That increased reliance on groundwater can also exacerbate groundwater level declines that would have occurred had pumping not existed. So they're really tied together.”

Perrone provided an example.

“So in California, for instance, 40% of the water use for farms and cities is groundwater. But during drought, this can go up to 60, to 70%,” she said.

When it comes to preparing for the future: the Biden infrastructure plan has been sold as a way to address the effects of climate change. Parts of the plan have been lambasted as “not infrastructure” by Senate Republicans, and there is contention about whether or not to pay for the plan by returning taxes on the wealthiest Americans to their previous higher levels.

But most agree that water systems are infrastructure, and the initial proposal included more than $100 billion for water infrastructure, a portion of which would be invested in rural water systems and household wells.

“It is time for a major infrastructure bill,” Amir AghaKouchak said.

He said water conservation is a critical piece of policy to avert and alleviate the worst effects of drought, and infrastructure improvement is foundational to water conservation.

“We have lots and lots of old infrastructure, including irrigation systems that were built many, many years ago,” he said. “They are not as efficient. Some of them are falling apart. And improving infrastructure usually means saving lots and lots of water.”

Perrone said any grand water infrastructure plan must gather more information. More than 13 million households in the U.S. rely on groundwater wells, and there are more than 1 million wells in Texas. But right now, researchers don’t know how much water every well pumps.

“The solutions are complex, and I don't think that there's any one solution that's going to get us where we need to be,” Perrone said. “I think that there is a range of solutions and they're probably going to include policy solutions and infrastructure solutions, and what those look like is probably going to be a puzzle that we have yet to really put together. And I would argue that a fundamental component of that puzzle is getting more data.”

For Texas, this summer is expected to be hotter and drier than normal, and construction continues up and down the U.S. 281 highway near Bandera.

If the water 550 feet under the Escamillas home again runs dry, they’ll face a tough choice. Trisha is from the heart of the Hill Country, and always wanted to raise a family outside of the city. She describes Jeremiah as a “city boy,” and their home in Bandera — just north of San Antonio — as a “happy medium.”

Trisha and Jeremiah Escamilla stand in the backyard of their "happy medium" home in Bandera.
Dominic Anthony Walsh
Texas Public Radio
Trisha and Jeremiah Escamilla stand in the backyard of their "happy medium" home in Bandera.

So, what happens if the well runs dry?

“I mean, the two options would be to move to the city, or even move further, even further out to a less populated area, if we wanted to remain in the country,” he said. “But the issue is going to be that everybody's going to be competing for depth. Like the only way to solve it — to get water, today — is to dig deeper.”

Trisha Escamilla doesn’t love the prospect of city life.

“Oh, God, if I can refrain from it, you know, as long as I can, then that's the plan,” she said. “But if we have to, we have to.”

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Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony