EVER since 1956, when Comal Springs - the lifeblood of the tourist-driven economy of New Braunfels - ran dry, farmers and urban dwellers in central Texas have been battling over the Edwards Aquifer. A swarm of users pump half-a-billion gallons of water per day from the 175-mile long aquifer - one of the world's most productive.
San Antonio wants the water for its rapidly growing population. Farmers to the west want it for irrigation. New Braunfels wants it for tourism. Environmentalists want it because Comal Springs and others in the region support a panoply of endangered species. Even the Department of Defense, which has a number of installations in the area, has been drawn into the fight.
Three years ago the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit to protect the rare species. In 1993, a federal judge sided with the group, and last month he ordered an independent monitor to come up with a plan to reduce withdrawals from the aquifer.
``It's just a water war,'' explains Rodney Reagan, a farmer who raises cotton, oats, and corn on 1,200 acres near Uvalde, 100 miles west of San Antonio. Mr. Reagan, like other farmers in the region, depends on water from the aquifer to irrigate his fields. He says the Endangered Species Act is being used as ``a vehicle for downstream people to try to win the war.''
New Braunfels city manager Mike Shands says the town is a plaintiff in the case because it wants to save the endangered species and the cold springs in which they thrive. ``I've looked at rivers and streams around the US. This thing is so clear you can read the date on a dime six feet under water. When you have that kind of an attraction, people are going to want to save it,'' he says.
The springs attract an armada of swimmers, canoeists, and vacationers who stream to the city during the hot summer months. Mr. Shands says tourists spend $100 million annually in the city.
Four federally protected endangered species - the Texas Blind Salamander, Texas Wild Rice, the Fountain Darter fish, and the San Marcos Gambusia fish - and a host of other rare species depend on the springs flowing in Comal Springs in New Braunfels' Landa Park and San Marcos Springs in nearby San Marcos. If too much water is pumped from the aquifer, the springs will go dry.
The fight over the aquifer can be traced to the Texas ``right-of-capture'' law. On the books since 1843, right of capture allows landowners to pump as much water from beneath their land as they want.
Texas is the only state in the Western US that does not regulate ground water usage. Most states allocate ground water the same way they do surface water.
San Antonio's rapid growth and its stake in the tourism business drive it to consume increasing amounts of water from the Edwards Aquifer. A defendant intervenor in the lawsuit, it is the largest city in the world completely dependent on ground water. The city's 1 million residents pump more than 250 million gallons of water daily from the underground reservoir.
San Antonio also needs the water for tourism. The city pumps about 4 million gallons of water per day from the aquifer into the San Antonio River to keep the water in the popular River Walk district at a constant level.
The city has been reluctant to build reservoirs and has only recently begun water conservation programs. The effort may be too little, too late, says Joe Moore, a court monitor in Dallas appointed last month to establish withdrawal limits for aquifer users.
Mr. Moore predicts that San Antonio will have to build a surface water supply and adopt aggressive conservation methods. But he cautions: ``Conservation won't be enough to feed the growth of the city.''
Hot, dry weather in the region has increased water consumption, and the water level in the aquifer has been dropping for several weeks. If the drought continues, outdoor residential usage in the city likely will be restricted.
On Aug. 1, a federal judge will review the court monitor's withdrawal plan for the aquifer. On Aug. 13, San Antonio residents will vote on a $70 million bond package to pay for a new surface-water reservoir. Voters rejected the project in 1991.
Some observers don't expect the withdrawal plan or the election to resolve the dispute. Reagan says the battle will continue because ``fighting over water has been going on since the West began.''