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Hill Country water quality: Challenges and Solutions

Armando Medina

From supporting a vibrant recreation-based economy, to sustaining our drinking water supplies, clean and clear rivers are the heart of the Hill Country. They have drawn people to the region for centuries. The recent decade of explosive growth and development has brought greater challenges than ever before to the Hill Country’s existing water quality.

On April 11, the Hill Country Alliance and Schreiner University hosted their annual Texas Water Symposium on these challenges… and solutions. You can listen to this forum audio using the player at the top of this page, or read the transcript below, lightly edited for the web. [Please forgive any typos in this rush transcript.]

Moderator: Marisa Bruno, Hill Country Alliance


  • Ron Green, Southwest Research Institute
  • Paul Bertetti, Edwards Aquifer Authority
  • Annalisa Peace, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.

Chris Distel [00:00:01] Good evening. My name is Chris Distel, and on behalf of Schreiner University, welcome to the Texas Water Symposium. We are delighted to have you here on campus. One of our longstanding partners and originators of the Texas Water Symposium is the Hill Country Alliance, and I am especially delighted to introduce our moderator tonight, also from the Hill Country Alliance, Marisa Bruno.
Marisa Bruno [00:00:57] Good evening everyone. My name is Marisa Bruno. I'm the water program manager at the Hill Country Alliance. We are a regional nonprofit that works alongside local partners to preserve the night skies, land, water, and the unique character of the Texas Hill Country. I'm also tonight's moderator for the Texas Water Symposium. The Texas Water Symposium Series is a partnership program between the Hill Country Alliance, Texas Public Radio, and Schreiner. Since 2007, the series has provided perspectives from policymakers, scientists, water resource experts, and regional leaders on various water topics. The topic for tonight is Water Quality Challenges in the Hill Country with the ongoing drought. Water quantity tends to be the main topic of conversation in the Hill Country, but the Hill Country has quite a few water quality challenges as well. The rapid development of the Hill Country that puts supply pressures on our rivers and aquifers also presents water quality issues, from things like new sources of wastewater that can cause algae blooms to increase storm water runoff that carry things like pesticides and oils. Today, we want to talk about some of these water quality issues and also talk about the solutions, and what we can do about them. Joining me for this panel and this conversation are three experts on this topic. Ron Green worked with the Southwest Research Institute for over 30 years, where he focused on water resource assessments and karst hydrology. Paul Bertetti is a senior director of aquifer science research and modeling at the Edwards Aquifer Authority, which is the groundwater district charged with protecting the Edwards Aquifer, and Annalisa Peace is the executive director of the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, which is the nonprofit focused on protecting the Edwards and Trinity aquifers, their springs, and their watersheds. This is really such a great group of folks to be talking about this. They also work a lot together, so I think it's going to be a great conversation. Thank you all for coming. So I'd love to kick off the conversation tonight by asking each of our panelists about their interest in their organizations, and interest in Hill Country water quality.

Ron Green [00:03:30] Good evening. So I'm Ron Green. I enjoy the, just reading the title of this, of this symposium. It's water quality challenges in the Hill Country. So when we're talking about that, when we're talking about the Hill Country, we're talking about the the Edwards aquifer. So it's the contributing zone, recharge zone, confined zone. And it's a bit of a complex system. It has the Edwards overlying the Trinity. But when you get up into the contributing zone, which is the Hill Country, oftentimes that's the Trinity that's at the surface. And there's a little bit of the Edwards on top where the contributing zone has not been, respected the way it should have been or should be over time, it's, been considered more like a, tin roof where precipitation lands and the Hill Country flows down across the,

What happens in the Trinity Aquifer, and in the Hill Country, has a direct influence on not only the water quality, but the water quantity that enters the Edwards Aquifer.
Paul Bertetti

the hill scapes and, you know, different terrains gets into the, the river channels where it eventually crosses the recharge zone. And then people have some interest in it. When it gets to the recharge zone, the water rapidly gets into the Edwards. Well, this conventional thought or, conceptualization of the contributing zone as a tin roof is data that goes back 20, 30 years. We now have science over that period of time that has given us much greater insight into the contributing zone, so that it doesn't just act as a tin roof. There's a lot of activity and recharge that occurs in the contributing zone. So this water gets underground, moves very rapidly through the contributing zone, gets down to the recharge zone and gets to the Edwards very quickly. This is the terrain. There's very little soil, very little filtering of this water. Plus being karst, water travels at very high speed that maybe as much as a mile a day. So just these activities that go on in the contributing zone have, tremendous impact on the Edwards, and that is just not appreciated. You can look at the, regulations by TCA. We may discuss how limited they are for the Edwards and the recharge zone. They're almost non-existent for the contributing zone. More protections have to be given to the contributing zone. And, what impact that has on, the Edwards in general. So my interest and my comments today are going to be focused on the contributing zone and hopefully bring some, added, appreciation for it's important in our in the water resource that we all rely on the Edwards.

Annalisa Peace [00:06:29] And, in case you don't know, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance is an alliance of 58 member groups through 21 counties in the Edwards and Trinity Aquifer region. So that's most of the Hill Country. And I refer to it as GEAA, the acronym GEAA, because it's kind of a mouthful, that name! And so when we started in 2004, we were equally interested in quality and quantity of Edwards waters. But with the adoption of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan, which set out minimum flows for Comals and San Marcos Springs, we were reassured that equitable allocations of Edwards water was in place. Although we still have serious concerns about the volumes of water produced by the Trinity Aquifer system, we shifted our focus, to dealing more with threats to water quality. The quality of the Edwards is so good that San Antonio Water System does not pre-treat the water from the Edwards wells prior to distribution. That's very rare for a municipal water system. We've had the luxury in San Antonio of just putting in a new well, as the city grew and pumping that out and serving those new areas. But were the aquifer to become contaminated, it would cost billions and billions of dollars because there is no centralized system. There's 17 supply wells. You would have to either put in conveyance systems to treat that at a centralized plant to pre-treat, or you would have to build 17 separate pretreatment plants. So that would be incredibly expensive. This would be disastrous, too, should the Edwards become contaminated for private well owners and smaller municipalities. And there are many that rely on the Edwards as their primary source of water. Concerns about water quality in a region are shared by other water purveyors, and those who benefit economically from, water recreation, to name a few. Could you imagine the impact if Comal Springs were to be closed to swimming due to contamination? That town would take a major hit in their sales tax revenue. GEAA was started by folks from throughout the Edwards region who had gotten municipal regulations to protect the Edwards Aquifer in Austin, San Antonio and San Marcos. As soon as these regulations were adopted by the cities, they started being attacked at the state level. Thus, we had a need for an alliance to work, to try to change things at the state level. And one of our major programs is our legislative program. Our region's been blessed by a system that provides bountiful water and pristine streams, if managed carefully. And our position is that we should be doing all that we can to protect the quality of our rivers, streams and groundwater.

Paul Bertetti [00:09:45] My name is Paul Bertetti and I work with the Edwards Aquifer Authority. And so that's, essentially a regional, groundwater management district with some special capabilities, set forth by the Texas Legislature. And, we essentially span the area from Uvalde County, through San Antonio and up to Hays County. So what what's our interest in the Hill Country? And you know, why would we worry about what's going on in the Hill Country? As Ron said, what happens in the Trinity Aquifer and what happens in the Hill Country has a direct influence on not only the water quality, but the water quantity that enters the Edwards Aquifer. If the Nueces and the Frio and, the Cibolo and the Blanco are not flowing, that water is not getting into the Edwards system, and that's at least 70% to 80% of the water that gets into the system, comes through those streams, as they flow across the recharge zone north of San Antonio and across the northern parts of all those counties, and gets into our aquifer. The geology is such that when water enters the recharge zone and gets into the aquifer, there's very, very little filtration. So the quality of water as it comes down those streams is also very important. There's also a complex interchange between the Trinity Aquifer system and the Edwards Aquifer system and the subsurface. So how much water gets used in the Trinity? How it's stored, how it's accessible to your users. And that makes a big difference in terms of how much water gets transferred to the Edwards and what happens back and forth. The other thing is that the components that affect water quality in Hill Country streams and water quality in the Trinity Aquifer are the same kinds of processes that influence water quality in the Edwards system. And so it's in our best interest as an organization to understand a lot more about those processes. So if you look at our water quality monitoring plan and a lot of our research projects, you'll see that maybe as many as 30% of the wells that we sample in any one year are actually Trinity wells. We're very interested in what's happening in the Trinity system, understanding a little bit about its connectivity. There are some similarities between the Trinity and the Edwards in terms of the rock types, but it's also much more complex in terms of its layering. Some of the influences of faulting, where the recharge comes from in the Trinity... and so helping us understand that is a big factor on how we might understand and manage the Edwards aquifer system. And so from that perspective, I think it's one of the things that's extremely critical is to understand just what's happening in the Hill Country, how that might affect the Edwards Aquifer down south, but also how it might affect the aquifers locally here. Because it's important for all of us.

The Texas Water Symposium was held on April 11, 2024 at Schreiner University.
Armando Medina
The Texas Water Symposium was held on April 11, 2024 at Schreiner University.

Marisa Bruno [00:12:55] For context, for those that are maybe newer to all these terms around the aquifers in the region, in Kerr County, the two major aquifers are the Trinity and the Edwards. That's why we're talking a lot about them. And Kerr County is in the contributing zone. And so when Ron is talking about there being little regulation in the contributing zone, despite the great importance it has to the Edwards Aquifer. I think it's helpful to have that context. So geographically speaking, we've heard a lot about, you know, the challenges of being in a geography like this. It makes for wonderful springs and clear rivers, but it also means that when you have pollution, it travels very quickly. So we have that sort of challenge of being in a karst system, but we are also in one of the fastest growing regions in the country. And so I'm hoping, Ron, maybe starting with you, what are we seeing as far as growth in the whole country and how is that impacting water quality?

Ron Green [00:13:51] Well, there have been a few comments made about what the Hill Country is like without development. The creeks are pristine. You have very natural runoff. There is some, slow infiltration because of the, you know, the natural state of things. Well, when you get development, a couple of things happen. One, you have the direct impact of the development on the surface water. So if you have, a high density development, you're going to have, you know, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, spills from oil and gas, you know, whatever else you have from transportation. And that's all going, into the, subsurface or the surface runoff. You also have the impact on the recharge. So, these plans that you have for the effluent from the housing, the development, no matter how it occurs, is going to be put into the environment. And that is going to have a greater impact on the aquifer. So you have the local impact on the surface water, the health of the streams. The streams are going to get more nutrients in it. They're naturally very low in nutrients… the phosphorus and nitrogen. But when you start loading up these nutrients, that's when you get the, degraded state of surface water. You start getting, cloudy water, lower dissolved oxygen, algal blooms start showing up. You just start counting off the flora and the fauna. So, developments have a profound effect on the health of the, surface runoff, the streams and, the recharge that occurs either in that area or downstream.

Marisa Bruno [00:15:56] Okay, so we have more development, which means more impervious cover, more storm water runoff with things like phosphorus from fertilizers and more pathogens. And then you mentioned wastewater, which also in the Hill Country is often directly discharged into streams. Or there's also septic systems. Ron, you recently published a wastewater study, and I'm hoping you can tell us a bit about that study and what the key findings were.

Ron Green [00:16:25] Yes. So, when you're discharging into an environment, you know, maybe stepping back a little bit… What kind of risk do you have? Well, you're not only, putting these nutrients that may not seem so bad into the environment, but you're also putting in, pathogens and maybe some of these other emerging, contaminants. And, if you're starting to have large development, you're going to get things like caffeine, estrogen, different things being put into the environment. And once again, going back to the fact that this is a karst system, once these different contaminants are put into the environment, they get very quickly into the subsurface. So pathogens may not be an issue where you have a very slow-moving aquifer, something like the Carrizo or say an aquifer, where water moves ten, 20 feet a year, but where you have karst systems, where it moves a mile a day, pathogens need to be underground for about 30 days before they die. So if they can get from a point of recharge to a well in less than 30 days, you run the risk of getting some serious contaminants into the subsurface. So you asked about a study that, was conducted at Southwest Research when I was there. What we looked at was what impact does the type of wastewater facility have on the area in which the effluent is being, discharged? So in the past, developers would often say when they're making an argument to put in a development is that if you have individual septic systems, that so many of those are defective and you're going to have a greater impact on the environment because of these, you know, some percent of the septic systems being defective. So they would try to convince, policymakers to allow them to put in one or two other types of wastewater facilities. One would be a land application in Texas. We call it a Texas Land Application Plan. That's where you spread effluent on the surface and you use the environment to let it mitigate over time. So it has, sort of a delayed, impact on the environment. The other is a direct discharge facility. That's where you put a small package plant, or maybe a larger one where you discharge effluent directly into a creek bed. This is Texas, and TCEQ does not provide these protections to the contributing zone. So, a development could discharge this effluent into a dry creek bed, and then it runs across other people's property. So we looked at the impact of these three types of wastewater facilities and what we found at the end of the day—and it's not that big of a shock—is that it all depends how much effluent you're putting into the ground, because with a care system, it goes very quickly into the, surface runoff. It gets very quickly into the creek beds and, and then into recharge. And it boils down to how much effluent you're putting in. So a development that has high density, three, four homes per acre is going to put that much more effluent into the environment, and you're going to have that much greater impact on the downstream. So you have two effects again, one is on the stream. So the streams that are subject to this effluent are going to be degraded by those three types of, contaminants. You have your, your nutrients, you have your, your pathogens, and you have your emerging contaminants. But then, and so that's just the local stream. But if you have several watersheds in the area that are also experienced in this type of development, then the recharge starts to get impacted because the Edwards is, as Annalisa was saying, is such a tremendous resource because the water quality is protected by dilution. And at some point if you keep putting contaminants in there, you're going to get over the limit of what the system can dilute down to safe levels. So over time, if development is allowed to continue unabated and in an ill-advised way, you're going to, potentially have enough contaminants introduced to the subsurface where the quality of recharge is being degraded. So, you know, will one development impact recharge? Probably not. But when you open the door to development and this type of development is allowed to, to continue and to expand, that's when you run into these issues.

Marisa Bruno [00:21:44] Okay, that's a bit of a scary picture. Pathogens. Algal blooms. Emerging contaminants. Annalisa, I'm curious what regulations or practices are in place to protect us from this sort of pollution? And from your perspective, do you think that they're that they're doing enough?

Annalisa Peace [00:22:07] Well, I'll start by saying the most adequate form of protection for our karst groundwater supplies would be to restrict high density human habitation in the recharging and contributing zones. And, scientists have been telling us, and one just told you, that the most effective way to protect our groundwater from sewage pollution in these sensitive areas is to limit the number of people who are producing sewage in those areas. But Texas is a property rights state, which has come to mean that the rights of property owners who profit from their land usually undermine efforts to regulate water quality for the public good. In our opinion, and I mean GEAA’s opinion, and we consult with scientists on this, that's how we came up with our principles that we espouse, that state regulations are inadequately protective of these delicate groundwater systems. Groundwater conservation districts, except for the Edwards Aquifer Authority, are not empowered to deal with issues of water quality. Realizing that the Edwards and Trinity karst systems are unusually sensitive to pollution, we usually propose regulations at the state level that are restricted to our part of Texas. So we're not saying everything that we propose to protect the Edwards needs to be enforced throughout the state, but we do believe that our area is worthy of special protections. The state does enforce an Edwards Aquifer protection plan that has requirements for new developments on the recharge zone and to a much lesser extent, on the contributing zone. This protection plan treats storm water as a pollutant, so it requires measures to seal the aquifer from recharge as a pollution prevention strategy, or to mitigate water quality through the use of engineered structures. They call them best management practices or BMPs. And these the installation of these permanent water quality basins are supposed to filter storm water before it's recharged into the aquifer. However, these structures are often poorly designed and maintained. GEAA conducted a study that found that at any given time, at least 10 to 15% of the structural or BMPs are persistently non-compliant. It's also our opinion that state regulations for non-point source pollution are not adequately protective of surface water systems throughout the state. This is particularly problematic when you have a system that is comprised of both surface and groundwater interacting with each other, with virtually no filtration provided by the natural system. The state prohibits building a wastewater treatment plant on the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, but it will permit a plant that's built immediately contiguous. And we've seen it in the case of 500ft from the recharge zone. And upstream centralized wastewater systems drive high density development, so sewage infrastructure can be installed in creeks that recharge the Edwards Aquifer in order to avoid reliance on sewage lift stations, which fail with alarming frequency. A study conducted by GEAA found that between 2008 and 2012, 83 spills totaling 2.5 acre feet of raw surge sewage occurred on the Edwards talk for recharge zone. The state does require smoke testing of sewer lines every two years and camera testing every five years to detect leaks with those sewer lines are on the recharge zone. But until these leaks are detected, they can go unnoticed because raw sewage can travel into a car system, downwards into the aquifer rather than bubbling up to the surface where it would be detected. So when it comes to managing wastewater in areas of pollution, there are really no good options. It's just less bad choices that were making.

Marisa Bruno [00:26:29] Well, I know that there was at least one recent win around pristine streams just a couple weeks ago. When it comes to wastewater and how we protect our streams from wastewater. Could you explain to the audience what a pristine stream is, and what happened with the Liberty Hill case?

Annalisa Peace [00:26:49] These pristine streams and their tributaries are those that have been shown to contain very low concentrations of total phosphorus, and that's averaged out over a ten year period. Only a small minority of streams out of all the streams in Texas meet this qualification. And they include all the streams in the headwaters of the Nueces basin, as well as the Devils River basin across Texas. About 43 streams would that be protected from discharge had that legislation passed. Now, we did get a win, as Marisa mentioned in the Liberty Hill case, and this was a case where, the city of Liberty Hill was discharging, directly discharging, their wastewater into the San Gabriel River. And it resulted in huge algae mats because they had too much nutrients in that wastewater. So, just recently, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality ordered that that wastewater treatment plant lowered the amount of phosphorus it discharges into the San Gabriel River. That came after years of residents, fighting with TCEQ about this. So, it that, you know, because it caused that excessive algae growth and they said that the algae, violated state water quality standards by preventing recreational uses of the river, such as fishing and swimming. So the commissioners voted unanimously, which is really unusual, to lower the phosphorus limit that the Liberty Hill wastewater treatment plant discharges, from the level that they had been discharging, which was 0.15mg per liter, 2.02mg/l. So that's quite, quite a big difference. It was a big win. And you know, it's our goal to make sure that wastewater discharges into these pristine streams in Texas meet the water quality measures found in these streams prior to direct discharge. There is in the EPA Clean Water Act, you know, provisions for saying that the de minimis, constituents should be conserved, which means if you were to take, a water samples of these clean streams and average them out, then whatever's being discharged into those streams should meet those same standards. And sadly, we have not been, actually, doing a very good job at that.

Marisa Bruno [00:29:35] I think we're hearing across the board that there's a lot of water quality challenges, that development presents more challenges. But people are moving to the Hill Country, and we hear that there is a need for more housing and more affordable housing. And so I'm curious to hear from you all. And maybe, Paul, we can start with you. What does sustainable growth look like? How can we grow in a way that doesn't present the very many water quality challenges that we've heard about tonight?

Paul Bertetti [00:30:10] Yeah, I think that's a pretty difficult question for me to answer. You know, I would backtrack a little bit and first address a little bit about the nature of these pristine streams. You know, one of the characteristics of the limestone that you have in the region is it has very little organic component to help buffer the addition of these kind of nutrients and, and many other contaminants. So that's one of the concerns is the streams themselves are just not really capable of of dealing with it on their own, if you will. So what you'd like to do is, have whatever discharge that you're going to have be as clean as possible, you know, before it goes into that stream. And there might be many options. You know, one of the things we've talked about in terms of the package plan are other options as well. There's a water quantity issue that's available when you discharge some of the waste into the streams. And so, you know, there there's an opportunity for enhanced recharge. So you have to kind of take that into account in terms of part of the balance of why you might choose one methodology or another land application, or that distributed land application is often a really good choice. But as you know, soils may be really thin. And so the real applicability of that and the real ability of the system to mitigate and filter, the weight treated wastewater as it infiltrates into the subsurface, you know, that may be limited as well. So, I think there's a number of things that you have to consider. And one question might be, well, we're just putting it into a normally dry creek bed. Why is that so much of a concern, even if you have an algal bloom? And what I would argue is one of the things you need to be aware of in this area and all around the Hill Country is because of the way the Trinity system works. You may have wells that are very near the creek that are not really connected to a creek. They're accessing, the part of the Rockford that has a distant connection. And the water may be older, have been in there for hundreds of years, and you may have a neighbor whose well is in the same zone, but because of some fractures or whatever, that their water is directly connected to the creek and changes quite rapidly. And in our some of our studies, looking at some of these features, and associated with some of the waste water treatment proposals, where we've gone out and sampled folks’ wells to kind of give them an idea of their background. What we learn is, you know, there's very big differences between even neighbors in terms of their potential connectivity to the surface. And so you have to be aware that there's quite a range of variability and where people are getting their water and how you're connected to the surface. And it's hard to predict unless you have some background information.

In terms of sustainability, I think one of the things that's really critical is to have an understanding of the availability of water, irrespective of the kind of development that you're going to have. It's like, do you have enough water? Will there be an appropriate accounting for what's available to sustain that over time? And I think there has to be a realistic assessment. You know, we're we're a rule of capture state. If you have a, supplier with some water wells, if it's for beneficial purposes, they can pull as much water as they need to within the constraints of the groundwater conservation district or whatever they have. But that doesn't mean that that supply is sustainable. And so you have to understand where you're going to mine the water essentially is not going to be recoverable, where it's replenishable, how you're going to replenish it and what the water quality of that replenishment is going to be. So if we think about, irrespective of whether or not you want to have, types of development or limit your development or limit your spacing, and that's something that, at the county level, you kind of have to decide how you're going to do that, the city level. You have to decide how to do that. You have to account for what are those resources going to be required to sustain that, and then where are you going to discharge it. And then use that information to your favor. You know, one of the things Annalisa mentioned is, well, the Edwards Aquifer Authority can be one of the entities that can help regulate, water quality. Well, essentially our position is that, you know, the TCEQ has been purposely and consistently identified by the legislature as the water quality regulatory authority. But TCEQ’a decision-making and their information can be driven by available science and information that you can provide that demonstrates clearly that they need to make a different set of decisions. And so this Liberty Hill case I think is a great example. There was enough factual information about what the level should be and how they could prevent these kinds of algal blooms that maintain the quality of water in the creek in which was receiving the discharge. That the TCEQ could make, a decision based on those facts and not based on, you know, like an emotional response. And I think that's really important. So one of the things that we're trying to work toward is getting enough of that science information about what's happening in the system to try to present the case as needed, to hopefully, advance better regulation and, get a better response not only from the legislature, but TCEQ, as they recognize those things. So in terms of sustainable development, I certainly can't define that for folks in the Hill Country whose economies depend on a lot of this growth. I think what really needs to happen is there needs to be a more explicit accounting for what water is really going to be used, and that should be taken into consideration when those kinds of developments are approved and when they're planned, and the whole community should be involved in that aspect.

Marisa Bruno [00:36:36] That's interesting. So what I'm hearing is ... a sort of systems wide approach to look at water quantity and quality together. I'll share that around the Highland Lakes near Austin, there's a discharge band because the Highland Lakes are the drinking water supply of Austin, and it has forced communities to really think about the room for reuse. And Liberty Hill is one of the communities that's now looking at direct potable reuse, which I know give some folks the X factor. But I think it's worth mentioning that sometimes when there's a water quality pressure, you end up doing things like reuse. But what I was also hearing Paul say is that depending on the stream, perhaps having higher quality discharge would make more sense because that water is going to benefit the stream, assuming that the quality is high. But okay, so reuse, looking at water quality. And so what else can we be doing?

Annalisa Peace [00:37:28] Well, we've gone to the legislature several times, to ask for actually just, legislation that's specific to the Edwards. Which would prohibit direct discharge of domestic sewage effluent into any waterway, that is, recharging the Edwards Aquifer. So we went in 2009, we had a bill filed, we've refined that from the committee hearings and all in what we heard from, from the various stakeholders. Then in 2017, we had, Senate, Senate bill and House bill that were very similar to the, the bill in 2009. These were both initiated by, GEAA and in 2017, we really worked at and I mean, this was supported by landowners from throughout the Texas Hill Country, who fought to protect their own properties in surface waters by challenges, proposed by treated effluent discharge. So that one actually made it out of committee and got placed on the calendar to be heard by the full legislature. Unfortunately, the time ran out because, ironically, they spent the last two weeks of the session arguing about the bathroom bill. So that was a big disappointment. So then, in 2019, Tracy King, who's retiring this year, sadly, was head of Natural Resources. He also proposed restrictions on permits authorizing direct discharge of waste or pollutants into, waters of certain areas at the Edwards. This session, we probably will not be asking to have this legislation filed because [we are] probably going to have to spend much of our time working to, defeat bad bills that we're anticipating during the 2025 session. Word is that many efforts to promote affordable housing by rolling back regulations are in the works. I think there's a number of different ways that you could go about, you know, promoting, affordable housing, but particularly in our area when water is, I think equally important, we don't want to see regulations rolled back.

L to R: Marisa Bruno, Ron Green, Paul Bertetti, Annalisa Peace at the Texas Water Symposium on April 11, 2024.
Nathan Cone
L to R: Marisa Bruno, Ron Green, Paul Bertetti, Annalisa Peace at the Texas Water Symposium on April 11, 2024.

Marisa Bruno [00:40:06] Ron, what do you think about this question of, you know, or is there a way to sustainably grow?

Ron Green [00:40:15] There can be. I see that there's a sort of a limit on how much development the landscape can sustain. But that's a rather broad term. You know, Paul was talking about that a little bit. A lot of it depends upon, technologies used. The amount of science that, decisions, whether policymakers are making the best decisions. Take, for example, a wastewater facility that's put in a development. Those are oftentimes put in by developers. Unfortunately, they may not put in, a Cadillac. They may be putting in something much less sophisticated. They turn it over to the community after the development, changes hands. We've seen this many times. There's a place just outside of San Antonio up past Helotes. That was San Antonio Ranch that had its own wastewater facility. Soon after it was turned over to the landowners or the, HOA, it started failing. And all the folks along the creek downstream from that, which was, [unintelligible] Creek and Helotes Creek, had to change their sources of water because of the nature of the cars. So these effluents went down the creek rather quickly, and it caused a lot of problems. Had that development gone in, and put in a better quality system than that type of developed development could be sustainable. So if this if developments go in and they're doing it on the cheap and not keeping things, up to the standards as required, even when the standards are, modest, the standards can be good if they're followed. But if they walk away from these standards, they're not going to be able to develop the land to the degree possible. And that, that mostly addresses water, quality, water quantity is also limited. If you have developments that have a lot of, Saint Augustine grasses and you have these folks moving from different areas, and they want big leaf trees that need a lot of water that may not be sustainable. You know, they need to, take into account the climate they're in and, adjust their uses accordingly. So there is wiggle room for growth. But it has to be done in an informed way. And, you know, we're mostly scientists, and it's our role to provide the best possible science to the policymakers, but it's their role to make the best possible decisions and policies that will, allow for the growth possible. But there's going to be some upper limit on how much development can go on. You know, this is a fragile, environment landscape, and it's not going to be able to take as much, development as some other areas.

Annalisa Peace [00:43:44] That teed it up real nicely for something that we're, advocating to. When we were doing those bills to prohibit direct discharge, one of the state senators said, well, what if we cleaned it up to drinking water standards? Would you be opposed to direct discharge, then? We were like, no, but if you were going to clean it to drinking water standards, why didn't you just redistribute that water for people to use for drinking water? So we're really advocating, water recycling in this could be with new developments going in with dual pipe systems. We know that, within our area, about 50% of the year-round water use is for outdoor irrigation. So you could have these dual pipe systems, that were, distributing that wastewater effluent, at the same standard that they would use for a land application permit. You could also go to—and I think this is the way of the future, too—direct potable reuse, which I think is going to be probably the most realistic option if you want to keep increasing the population in this area.

Marisa Bruno [00:45:00] So we're talking a lot about wastewater. But earlier we also talked a lot about storm water. And so I'm wondering if there is a development coming in. How can they be building in a way that is going to mitigate some of the water quality impacts and some of the water quality impacts? I'm thinking of things like perhaps impervious cover, or other low impact development.

Annalisa Peace [00:45:22] I want Paul to touch on what the EAA is doing to at their field research station, but we're looking at we've been promoting what they called low impact development, for, you know, the past 15 years or so. So with low impact development, you're mimicking the natural hydrology of a site and treating that storm water in such a way that it will be cleaned up somewhat before it goes in. And then that also that, some of the storm water can be conserved. So there's several types of what they call, BMPs, best management practices. So you have permanent BMPs that promote infiltration into the ground. And these can be bio retention, like filter strips. And then you have green roofs or sand filters. You can have BMPs for storage. And we use like artificial wetlands and rainwater harvesting. You can have BMPs that treat and convey storm water like vegetated swales, and vegetated filter strips. And the thing is that the low impact development or green infrastructure, it provides many, many environmental and economic benefits. Besides improved water quality, it reduces flooding, which is really important to us because we're in flash flood alley. It improves groundwater recharge and it restores aquatic habitats. And it can also reduce the urban heat island effect. It can mitigate climate change by sequestering carbon more successfully in soil and plants. It saves energy. Especially with green roofs, trees, shading, and reduced and avoided water treatment costs. It reduces air pollution by reducing ground level ozone and increases property values by improving esthetics and connecting the built to the natural environment. So this is something that we, a lot of the cities have, developed manuals, to, direct developers how to use, these, low impact development techniques within their jurisdictions. But they all are voluntary. And frankly, we would love to see them just go through and strike out every “may” in those technical guidance manuals, and write “shall.”

Paul Bertetti [00:48:00] I think one of the, one of the real overlooked, capabilities for, developments and waste discharge is to establish managed wetlands, associated with these waste discharge features. You know, it's kind of hard to imagine wetlands in our current climate and environment, everything being so arid, and, you know, the ephemeral streams are typically dry, right? But if you have a, guaranteed source of waste discharge from a system, then near the headwaters of some of these dry streams, you can create a flood resilient, very effective natural filtration system that can benefit the community, around or the neighborhood or where there's development is that's, contributing to the waste discharge, but also provide this sort of, you know, very effective filtration system, that is shown to work, around the country, around the world, and done so in a very effective way. And so you're taking advantage of a known quantity of water that can be discharged, with a natural feature that is, incredibly resilient over time. You know, one of the things that, Marisa just mentioned is at the Edwards Aquifer Authority, one of our concerns is, well, how do we maintain, do the kinds of things that can help to maintain water quantity and quality over the long term? You know, in the face of this development? Well, how do we get more water into the system or how do we improve the water quality of the system? So we have an area that we call now the Field Research Park, an area in which we're doing some research to look at, well, if we can undertake some simple land management techniques, kind of these things that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. Typical berm and swale development. One rock dams, things have been used in arid environments, throughout the history and quantify the effects of those. And the idea is can we establish a berm and swale, capture rainwater, limit the runoff, slow down the runoff, allow things to infiltrate better, and then quantify how effective that is. And the idea behind that is. People tend to say, oh, this system works and it's very good. We see changes, but those observed effects are not quantifiable. Well, how much water did you save? How much water infiltrated? Was it effective? Did you change the water quality? Did you have some impact? If we can measure those now, we can argue for. Providing incentives for ranchers and landowners to do that on their property, perhaps provide potential financial incentives for them to be able to do it. These are not high cost, sort of features of things that can be done well if you have just a few tens of acres, right. You don't need hundreds of thousands of acres to kind of manipulate this. Understanding the importance of the buffers near your streams, and enhancing those riparian zone buffers in a way that they're managed properly so that they can act, also act as the zones to capture and filter systems and improve your water quality. So those are the things that we're working on now as a design plan over the long period of time, using a piece of property that we have control of so that we can do these long term experiments and quantify what's happening in the subsurface. If we can improve that water quality and how we can manipulate the system, perhaps to everyone's benefit in a way that's not only affordable, but, landowners can use on their own properties.

Marisa Bruno [00:51:45] That's great. I think incentives are always very popular. There's one thing that we haven't spoken about yet, or two things that we haven't really mentioned that I know we've talked about in the past. So one is this idea of higher density development and more green space. I'm hoping someone can describe why we might want to have more high density development in certain areas.

Annalisa Peace [00:52:06] I'll go for that. I mean, we've been advocating smart growth, for a long time. And we're seeing like back in 2004, we started working with folks out in Boerne, they wanted to do a minimum one acre lots and Boerne. And we were encouraging them actually to, restrict impervious cover by building up a high density, which means that you're not running sewer lines all over the place and, and infrastructure. So it really saves on infrastructure costs and then offset that by open spaces. So, so we're getting the ecosystem services of those lands. And Boerne actually has adopted a lot of that stuff and has directed, some of their development to, to do that. And it's very popular too, because, I think people want these days to have natural areas that they can use, rather than, you know, it used to be you had to have a golf course for a new development, but I think, it's very doable. Unfortunately, without any regulations or adequate incentives. And we were saying we could if somehow get permission from the state to be able to or, put some framework in place so that we would compensate landowners for the amount of land, so that typically in a conservation easement, you're preserving the whole land. If we could just say, hey, you're going to build it to 80% impervious cover, can we knock it down to 40% and we can somehow find ways to compensate you? So I think there's a lot of things we could do to be more flexible. And in San Antonio, I'll tell you, we did propose back in the 1990s that, anybody who, preserved land over the recharge zone could get credits for developing elsewhere on the recharge zone. So in the urban areas, there's a lot of different things that you could do that are flexible.

Marisa Bruno [00:54:18] Okay. I'm going to tee you up for one more. We've talked about site specific design. And so could one of y'all explain what that might look like in the recharge or contributing zone?

Annalisa Peace [00:54:29] Well, I guess I'll jump in on that one again, because we often negotiate with developers because, when they're building in these environmentally sensitive areas, typically, we will try to negotiate with them to do more site specific development. And part of that is, rather than paving over site, they're on the recharge zone. They would be required to seal these recharge features. We asked that they put big natural vegetated buffer zones around those features and not build on those. No building in the floodplains, preserving the natural buffers. The riparian areas is huge. But what we see a lot of times is they'll just come in and have a cookie cutter template of how they're going to do development, and it really doesn't serve the area well. And what it really does, two, is that it puts enormous expenses on the surrounding communities. Or in a lot of cases, it's the counties down the road because they're having to make up for flood, flood mitigation, flood control projects, traffic, the whole thing. And so, I guess that's, the site specific. We would love to see everybody go and look at this piece of land and actually walk over it and say, what's the most sustainable way I can develop that land?

Ron Green [00:56:04] One. One piece of science that I think could help drive better decision making is to understand how cars formed in the contributing zone and the Hill Country, and what happens is over long periods of time when you have rainfall, which is slightly acidic, it goes down into the riverbeds and it develops enhanced flow pathways that mimic the channels of the rivers. So if you have a spill in that area, it's going to have a straight line into the aquifer. So when you have development, stay away from that. And it just doesn't make any sense in the Hill Country to put sewer lines right in the most vulnerable part of the aquifer recharge area, which is the creek bed. But that's what they do. You can have development, but if you recognize the science and the way the system operates, you can reduce the risk for spills over time by just, honoring the, the creek beds and their sensitivity, to the to these the development and, you know, as, both Paul and analysts that you have swales you set aside the area around the creek beds, you have development with the more impervious cover away from the creek beds, and you're just going to have much more, much greater protection for the environment. If you recognize the, system you're dealing with.

Marisa Bruno [00:57:44] Okay, so what I'm hearing tonight is the Hill Country is, is a very, sensitive area. And so this idea of development and increased wastewater, it's going to continue posing challenges. But there are things we could be doing. Higher treatment standards re-use, more cluster high density developments that would make the situation better. So to wrap up the panel portion of tonight, I'm curious if you could make one policy decision to improve water quality in the whole country. And just one, what would it be?

Annalisa Peace [00:58:21] I'll go first. And so, I mean, you know, the state has, like said, no density restrictions for the Edward Dock for recharge or contributing zones. Now, counties can adopt under state law, counties can adopt impervious cover limits. So we would really urge all the counties within our region to adopt impervious cover limits to protect these cars, groundwater systems. In 2021, Rep. [Kyle] Biedermann filed a bill which would have given counties in the state, designated priority groundwater management area, the authority to regulate new development. Sadly, that did not pass. But this is especially needed because with the passage of one bill last session, SB 2038, that bill allows any landowner to petition to be released from the extraterritorial, jurisdiction that's regulated by cities. Now, as I mentioned earlier, it's these cities like San Marcus, Austin, San Antonio that have, aquifer protection ordinances in place. Now, those they would have to for any, any landowner. And this is usually developers who petition, be released from observing those regulations. So that kicks it back to the jurisdiction of the counties. And sadly, the counties don't have a lot of rules when it comes to land use authority, but they do have, the ability to, at least, enact impervious cover limits.

Paul Bertetti [01:00:02] So I'm not going to offer up a policy thing. But what I, what I would say if I had one thing that we could implement, region-wide, is just a greater sense of folks being able to understand what's happening to their neighbor as part of the activities that are taking place. Just sort of a, you know, we know people get up in arms and they get really motivated when things are happening to them or happening downstream. And, I think, you know, it would be great if somehow we could we don't need to have a Kumbaya thing or anything special, just sort of an awareness of what the impacts might be, for this kind of development, or this kind of activity or this kind of water use and discharge, across the region, because it's all connected. You know, the water, water that comes off the plateau feeds the springs that feeds your rivers here go out to the Llano and the Guadalupe and then Oasis. You know, Ron and I worked on a project, I don't know, 15 years ago where we visited those kinds of springs on that plateau. You know, it's all connected. You know, the water from there comes here. Water comes into your system and goes further. Those springs feed those streams downstream. In interact with the Edwards, the Edwards streams and springs discharge and feed the Guadalupe and other rivers downstream. It's a process that connects everyone. Similarly, you know, when you withdraw water from a well or have water in a stream that affects your well. If other people knew what that effect was and understood that and there was more awareness, I think it it would really improve our ability to cooperate and understand, you know, the maybe the a better way of moving forward. So what I'd like to see somehow some, you know, communication and acknowledgment that's, more effective, you know, across the region.

Ron Green [01:02:09] You know, I've made some comments about the TCEQ. And I do work with them. I, you know, I'm respectful of them. They are, oftentimes, the messengers, of the message that's given by Texas and the legislature and, you know, they are, charged with, fulfilling their, their mission. But if I could do one thing to change things, I think that there is a little more they could do, as an entity. And I would nominate Analisa to be the next commissioner.

Marisa Bruno [01:02:51] Thank you all for those words of wisdom. And, Paul, I really appreciate that point about, interconnectedness that I know I've had a conversation with many folks in this room, actually, about the importance of, being neighborly when we think about our water system. So I'm glad you ended on that point. So at this point we're going to take audience questions. I'm going to actually move up to the podium so I can see folks better and give you the microphone. Any takers? I'm going to ask one scientific one to kick it off, which is we're in Kerr County. Obviously, the Guadalupe River is running right through here. Do any of you have a number off the top of the head, of the top of your head of the impact of the Guadalupe River on the Edwards Aquifer?

Paul Bertetti [01:03:43] Yeah, that's an interesting question because according to the way we model the system and the way it's measured by the US Geological Survey, the Guadalupe itself doesn't recharge the Edwards. So we have distributed recharge in the Guadalupe basin as it crosses the recharge zone. But the river itself doesn't seem to contribute a whole lot. But what it does do is contribute to the Trinity River system back and forth across the region. It loses a lot of water there. Springs, in fact, just a few years ago, within the last 15 years, there's a whole series of springs, that have been discovered that are discharge points from the Guadalupe, you know, into the, in the Guadalupe. Now, the Guadalupe, there were previously really unidentified. And so as we have more gauging, we understand how the flow changes across the region. We understand a little bit more about its importance as a recharge source. So no from the Edwards directly doesn't have that much of an impact. But for the system wide, the while loop is, incredibly important for upper and middle Trinity recharge.

AUDIENCE MEMBER [01:05:03] The city of Kerrville operates, I believe, three ASR wells. And I just like to have your input concerns, benefits, problems with ASR wells.

Paul Bertetti [01:05:17] I'm sure Ron can speak to that too. From my perspective, ASR is a pretty fantastic, component of water management. ASR stands for aquifer storage and recovery. It's a mechanism in which you can, pump fresh water into the subsurface and store it down there and then recover it later. And ideally, you can work in systems that, store the water for a long period of time. You don't have to worry about, evaporation or other management features. It can be expensive because you gotta build the infrastructure to get it down there. And then you have to be concerned about potential water quality changes as it comes back up. But the city of San Antonio now has, one of the largest ASR operations, in the world. It's very effective at recovering large amounts of water. Kerrville has one of the one of the first acers and, down in the, I think the lower trinity in the Houston unit. And I think it can be a tremendous opportunity to have a storage mechanism to make up water in those dry months during droughts. It's very effective. City of New Braunfels. New Braunfels Utilities is, exploring, their own ASR, in kind of a little more challenging environment, but, they're working on seeing whether or not that system will work. So I think, from my perspective, ASR, although it can be quite expensive and require some infrastructure, can be a tremendous resource. And, I think it's worth pursuing, by many organizations. And so Kerrville, certainly led the way, in establishing one of the first ones. And it's been successful for a long time.

Ron Green [01:07:03] You know, one of the challenges in the Hill Country is that, you talk about average precipitation. There is no average precipitation. You have one year of 50in, followed by three years or four years of 15in. And so, you know, there's, you know, people see all the water going down into the Gulf and they say, well, this wasted water. Well, you do need those, those big floods down the rivers in order to keep them healthy. You need those environmental flows. But you can still capture some of that water. And you need a engineered system in order to do that. ASR provides that. So it is a very, major, way to protect yourself for those times when you don't have average flows.

Annalisa Peace [01:07:54] You know, that, you know, because we're seeing, you know, with climate change, increased summertime temperatures, especially that, ASR is going to be a more successful water supply strategy than surface water reservoirs. And I mean, it it's kind of crazy because you've got like the city of Dallas is still considering flooding acres and acres of farmland for the Marvin Nichols Dam. But, you lose so much water and that will only continue to increase with climate change.

Marisa Bruno [01:08:27] Yeah, I think one of for the Highland lakes, either the first or second biggest consumer of water is evaporation. So it is a serious water user. Are there any other questions from the audience?

AUDIENCE MEMBER [01:08:41] We live in Gillespie County, and I've seen cross-section profiles of what's under your feet, essentially, and it's very complex. Where would I find the best models, the most current models right now? For now, word you mentioned neighbors might not even be connected because of the way defaults and other things work. Where can I find the models that you're talking about online? Or what agency could I contact to see what? Is under our feet.

Ron Green [01:09:11] That's a challenge. Yeah, because, to have that detail at the scale, when you talk about your next door neighbor, you're probably not going to be able to get that. But, your groundwater conservation districts oftentimes have some of the best information they have. Well, logged. And, if you have the interests, you can sit down with the well, log in your neighborhood and see how they lined up. And if you see that, you know, interface is that 500ft at one place and 200ft, you know, at the next property, you probably have a fault. Once you know what the faulting is, that's still a challenge, because faults can act sometimes as barriers to flow, and they can also act as conduits to flow. So it's it just sort of supports us. The comments that we've made that the these karst systems, the Trinity and the Edwards combined are a complex system and not easily categorized in order to do what you like to do.

Paul Bertetti [01:10:19] Yeah. Let me also add so to back off a little bit at a higher level, the Texas Water Development Board, has models that in an attempt to understand the, the quantity of water throughout Texas. And so they have a series of models, for particular aquifer systems. And so why it might not be at the level of detail of, say, your neighbor. It certainly is the starting point of understanding how that system works. And those are being revised. They're constantly revised over time. And so the Texas Water Development Board, groundwater page, has a series of not only groundwater models and applicability, but also the reports associated with that. And so the Texas Water Development Board web page, in addition to your local groundwater conservation district, would be the best places to start out for that kind of information. And, I think it's, the Water Development Board website is extremely functional and, has a lot of resources. So it's a it's a really great place to start, whether or not you're looking at water quality in a particular well or from a whole model and conceptual model standpoint.

Marisa Bruno [01:11:32] I think we have time for one more question.

AUDIENCE MEMBER [01:11:43] So in terms of my question, I don't know how much of concern this is here, but are there any concerns or threats regarding potential contamination from rail or trucking infrastructure, like there was contamination in East Palestine, Ohio, with the damage from the chemical spill there from the rail line.

Ron Green [01:12:09] Unfortunately, the simple answer is yes. And, I think you see some efforts to avoid that where they limit hazardous waste on certain highways or areas. But being a karst system, once again, you can have a contaminant in the ground and out of well within hours or days. And one of the first public supply wells to experience contamination. In a karst system was Braun Station in San Antonio, in '78, I believe, and it was Cryptosporidium. It was improperly completed well and allowed very fast transport of a pathogen. Didn't have time to be mitigated by dying off in the time that it infiltrated the ground. It got into the well. SAWS had to go in and well, I don't think it was SAWS, it may have been BexarMet that went in and retired the well and that is a risk that we have. So if you have railroads or highways that allow for transport of hazardous materials going by, you know, the sense of barriers and in the recharging and contributing zone, it is a concern.

Marisa Bruno [01:13:34] Thank you for that question. If you all could join me in thanking the presenters for a really interesting conversation. And see you next year.

Water, essential for life, is our most precious and valuable natural resource, but water supply is limited and under increasing pressure from a growing population. How will we protect this resource and plan for a sustainable future? There is a great need for a water-literate public; decisions being made today have far reaching and long lasting effects for our children and future generations.