Texas Town Tries to Cap Free-Flowing Water Use

San Antonians spar over access to key aquifer

WITH its irrigated golf courses and scenic river walk, San Antonio doesn't look like a city poised on the brink of a water crisis.

But its smoothly flowing river and lush lawns belie increasing turmoil in the city's water sources. Like many areas, San Antonio is confronting tough choices as its finite water supplies collide with rising consumption. And a bitter battle over access to the key Edwards Aquifer here may hold lessons for regions struggling to change old attitudes about water use.

Arid Western states long ago began to face up to water-supply dilemmas, responding with laws that divvy up ownership of every drop of water. Now scarcity ''has come east'' to wetter climes where citizens are accustomed to thinking of water as a free resource, says Kenneth Frederick, an economist at Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

In the case of Texas, the issue boils down to city planners confronted by 50-year growth projections. The state is predicting that population will double in the next five decades. Yet 80 percent of Texas water supplies have been developed already.

To some, the answer lies in more dams and reservoirs. At the Texas Water Development Board, which identifies and finances water projects, supply chief Steve Densmore believes the state still has 25 ''better'' sites for new reservoirs and 186 potential sites in all.

But Peter Emerson, an economist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin, scorns the Texas attitude of ''we'll build another dam.'' In fact, he says, landowners and environmentalists who value free-flowing streams will oppose new reservoirs.

What's more, no unowned water is available for capture. ''Basically, in Texas, the streams have been totally allocated,'' says Ron Kaiser, a researcher at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The dispute over the Edwards Aquifer in south Texas - which has been wending its way through the courts for four years - is pitting landowners eager to maintain pumping rights to water flowing under their property against environmentalists and city planners arguing that San Antonio must develop a broad program to manage its water resources.

Texans do not actually own a set quantity of water under their land. Instead, an 1843 law lets them ''capture'' as much as they can pump. While this pleases those clinging to long-established property rights, it can wreak havoc with other users - as well as with springs and coastal ecosystems - dependent on the aquifer.

A lawsuit by the Sierra Club prompted a federal judge to order the state Legislature to craft an aquifer-management system that would address usage problems. Before it could commence last August, however, the authority was challenged by landowners concerned about losing their right to pump from the aquifer.

Last week, a state judge sided with landowners, ruling that their property rights had been taken. Meanwhile, the federal judge in the Sierra lawsuit has said that, absent a state-designed system, he will impose his own aquifer-management system next year.

With question marks hanging over virtually every water-development option, San Antonio has for now resorted to conservation and wastewater-recycling programs. But those alone will not meet future needs. Some residents have told Joe Aceves, president of the San Antonio Water System, that the city should just stop growing.

''Do we plan to tell our kids to move somewhere else?'' Mr. Aceves counters.

Environmentalists, for their part, are calling for market mechanisms that will allow water to be transferred efficiently from lower-value uses like agriculture to higher-value municipal uses.

San Antonio's best option may be to purchase water from farmers, who could invest the money in lower-wastage irrigation equipment or switch to dry-land farming. The Edwards Aquifer Authority possesses some of the powers to create a water market.

But even if an appeals court a year from now reverses last week's ruling, Mr. Emerson says, the Authority lacks other powers essential to water transactions. That means the fight over the Edwards Aquifer will continue in court.

Spending money on lawyers ''has been our history so far,'' Aceves says. ''I'll guarantee you, that hasn't produced one drop of water for us.''

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