Texas Water Wars Heat Up Under Endlessly Blue Skies

The ongoing drought in the Southwest has reached beyond withering crops and hungry livestock and into a federal court, where lawyers will argue over the little water that remains.

Today, a federal judge in Pecos will hear arguments from the Sierra Club, which seeks to impose withdrawal limits on the Edwards Aquifer, a vast underground reservoir that supplies drinking water for more than 1 million people in and around the city of San Antonio.

The hearing is part of a massive class-action suit filed by the group on June 11. The suit, filed under the Endangered Species Act, names the city of San Antonio and nearly 1,000 other users who pump water from the aquifer as defendants. The environmental group insists that pumping limits are needed because the aquifer feeds artesian springs in the nearby towns of New Braunfels and San Marcos. Without mandatory pumping limits, the springs, which support five federally protected endangered species, are expected to go dry within the next three weeks.

The Sierra Club has been trying to impose pumping limits on the Edwards Aquifer since 1991, when it filed suit against then-Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan. That suit dragged on for five years without a clear winner.

"This is both a species issue and a people issue," says Mike Shands, the city manager in New Braunfels, a town of about 32,000 that lies 30 miles north of San Antonio. Comal Springs - the largest spring in the Southwest - attracts an armada of tourists who flock to New Braunfels in the hot summer months to swim, canoe, and vacation. The tourists pump some $100 million per year into the city's economy. Mr. Shands says hydrologists are predicting that if the springs go dry, they could stay dry for several years.

"I think most businesses in the city can survive a summer downturn," says Shands. "I don't know if they can survive two."

To be sure, the dry weather has made its mark. Lake levels throughout the central Texas hill country have dropped to their lowest point in a decade. Out on Lake Travis, outside of Austin, rocky islands have cropped up in unexpected places, prompting the Lower Colorado River Authority to impose nighttime speed limits for motorboats on the lake, says authority spokesman, Robert Cullick.

More than 200 cities around the state are now actively promoting water conservation measures, including restrictions on outdoor watering. In San Antonio, residents may use automatic water sprinklers only one time per week. Washing of driveways and walkways is prohibited. While the Sierra Club lawsuit could limit San Antonio residents' usage even further, a few small towns in Texas are simply running out of water.

WORTHAM, a town of 1,000 residents southeast of Dallas, expects to exhaust its reservoir within six weeks. All outdoor watering has been prohibited and residents and businesses are limited to 10,000 gallons per month. Any amount over that costs residents 10 cents per gallon.

The town is hoping to buy water from neighboring towns and is even considered piping water in from a lake 130 miles away by using an old oil and gas pipeline. Diana Echartea, Wortham's city secretary, said the town is working hard to conserve water. "And we are still praying for rain," she said.

The town of Edgewood, located 65 miles east of Dallas, had only a two-week supply of water left on June 15, when it completed construction of a nine-mile-long pipeline to a nearby reservoir. Mayor Finis Skinner, says the town of 1,200 was lucky to get the project finished when it did. Edgewood spent $750,000 on the project, which will raise the average water bill by $4 a month. But no one in town has objected to the price hike. "It's better to pay that," Mr. Skinner says, "than not have any water."

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