Environmental Stewardship Needs You: Our ways With Water Will Seal Our Fate

March 22, 2022

This time last year, all Texans were shaking heads in disbelief at the freeze-burned, pipe-broken aftermath of Winter Storm Uri, a storm that froze the entire state for a week. Thankfully, we escaped a polar vortex this winter. Instead we had other record breakers: when temperatures plunged a whiplashing 56-degree in 24 hours in January, when the hottest December flipped to the third coldest February, and how a five-inch torrent fell in a single weekend yet only a few sprinkles of rain have fallen in the past five weeks.

Now comes yet another upper-level disturbance to the neo-cortex as that old ghost of summers past appears to be creeping in from the West. As of March 14, Texas is beginning to look more like what a very dry California did last year. While this droughty trend could change in a minute, as Texans well know, a decade has passed since 2011 when Texas established the new drought of record.

Texas depends on groundwater for more than half of its annual water consumption. This critical underground water supply is also what feeds nearly a third of stream flows into the state’s rivers — a portion that rises considerably in times of drought.

Earlier this year I was encouraged to apply for an opening on the board of the Lost Pines Water Conservation District, which manages and monitors groundwater in Bastrop and Lee counties. A friend reminded me I had “dodged a bullet” when I was not chosen to stand on the front lines of this area’s intensifying water battles. Even the relatively wet Houston is feeling the mounting pressure of managing more people with extremes of too little or too much water. In The Woodlands, where my brother, Hugh, has lived for the past 30 years, five MUDs (municipal utility districts) are dealing with escalating groundwater management issues, some triggered by flooding there from Hurricane Harvey. A retired petroleum engineer who knows more than most about what goes on beneath our feet, he has agreed to run for a vacancy on one of the MUD boards.  

Safeguarding our water supply has been the mission of Steve Box since he founded the nonprofit organization Environmental Stewardship (ES) 20 years ago. Recently, he spent time with our team of college interns, many of whom are environmental science majors  connecting the inter-dependent ways that water rises and falls, comes and goes, both above ground and below.  With aquifer maps and charts for visuals, Steve opened our eyes to what we cannot see yet depend upon for every cup of tea, flush of toilet, swim in the lake, watering of lawn and growing of food. Our interns left with a greater appreciation of his labor of love and how to support it, especially work done on behalf of the Austin-Bastrop River Corridor (see: [https://www.environmental-stewardship.org/austin-bastrop-river-corridor-partnership/](https://www.environmental-stewardship.org/austin-bastrop-river-corridor-partnership/)).  

Box’s research has taken on added urgency with the surge (more like tsunami) of development in Bastrop County. Without more robust monitoring of our rivers, streams and alluvial aquifers, too much guesswork drives water management decisions here: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/_mKqr-RuJ7Q6b34Z_xxemqlMmzrRgwXzdTroIRj_K_eiBpkNvpzXQHBKmc4jZgBLP-yrfpLDDyFDOPc7lqYb6WxTocpuPy1ai4gxv5JzFJiSeKftUOPlEt7cAik6_6dCvRRCNF4N  
Critical questions include:  

-   Why is surface water that flows into the Highland lakes declining despite recent above-average yearly rainfalls?  
-   What happened to area wells when high-volume pumps pulled thousands of acre feet of water to quench our thirsty cities?   
-   How does gravel mining impact alluvial aquifers — those close-to-surface water sponges that reside like layers of fat along the lean muscle that is the river channel?   
-   Why are several LCRA river flow monitors in Bastrop County not working?

As our fields start to green up after several damaging freeze events this winter, conditions will soon become optimal for growing vegetables and flowers. Optimism once more begins circulating through a farmer’s own sluggish pathways and seeds get sown with a light step and a whistle. However, all the while I consider how can we do a better job of monitoring Texas’ most valuable resource.

Last year’s report from the Environmental Defense Fund — “Beneath the Surface  — outlines five major groundwater management challenges facing Texas.  One of them is the increased threat from selling and marketing of groundwater. 

“With the state's population booming and its climate ever more susceptible to drought, underground aquifers are increasingly vulnerable to over-pumping in Texas,” it warns. “That’s a huge risk to farmers, ranchers, big cities, small towns and wildlife. It also threatens the rivers and streams that the state is trying to protect.”

Knowing how easy I fall back into that hydrological cycle of denial, I’m increasingly thankful for organizations like Environmental Stewardship for these calls to action. Now is the time to do more and demand answers by getting involved with these and other water guardians before those cracks reappear in the ground beneath our feet.

*Editor’s Note: you can find the report here: https://www.edf.org/beneath-the-surface-texas?_gl=1*8txqb4*_ga*OTMwMTA4OTAyLjE2NDcxNzgxNTQ.*_ga_WE3BPRQKW0*MTY0NzE3ODE1NC4xLjAuMTY0NzE3ODM5Mi42MA