SAWS promises mitigation water project could drop aquifer by 90 feet in Gonzales

San Antonio Water System officials are expecting the level of the Carrizo Aquifer in western Gonzales County to drop 90 feet long-term after pumping begins for their planned Gonzales County Carrizo Aquifer Project.

Greg Bowen, Victoria Advocate

SAN ANTONIO, May 21, 2004 -- San Antonio Water System officials are expecting the level of the Carrizo Aquifer in western Gonzales County to drop 90 feet long-term after pumping begins for their planned Gonzales County Carrizo Aquifer Project.

But SAWS representatives aren't planning to wait until water levels in domestic or farm water wells begin to fall before implementing a "mitigation program" to ensure that those wells keep flowing.

Speaking Wednesday evening at the Stockdale Community Center during the first in a planned series of public meetings designed to brief area residents on the $267 million project, SAWS' water resource engineer Gary Guy said SAWS will act ahead of time to prepare existing wells for those declines.

"We're not going to wait until it happens," Guy said. "Once it happens, it's too late for the landowner. He's out of water. That is not a situation that SAWS wants to see happen."

Fred Arce, SAWS' manager of water resources and conservation, told the gathering of about 50 area residents that the San Antonio Water System is committed to implementing a mitigation program.

"Some examples of the mitigation that we're committed to today are lowering of (well) pumps, installation of new pumps in existing wells and in some cases even drilling a new well," Arce said.

The Carrizo Aquifer project is projected to provide 22,600 acre-feet - or about 7.3 billion gallons - of water annually to help San Antonio meet its growing demands.

It is possible that additional groundwater could be harvested from northeastern Gonzales County and northern Wilson County in later project phases, if needed.

The first phase of the project, scheduled to go on line in 2007, would include a 16-well water-well field and pump station site located between Nixon and Gonzales along state Highway 97 near the community of Bebe; a 57-mile long underground pipeline that would run south of Nixon, Stockdale, Floresville and across the San Antonio River to the Twin Oaks water treatment plant in south Bexar County; and a 5- to 6-acre "booster" station to be built somewhere near Stockdale to help push the groundwater to the Alamo City.

SAWS, which conducted pumping tests at its leased 11,000-acre well-field site, expects the Carrizo in 2050 to be drawn down by 90 feet in the Bebe area, 35 feet in Stockdale and 20 feet at Floresville and Poth.

The draw-down figures are below the 100-foot limitation established by the Gonzales County Underground Water Conservation District, SAWS said. They include the draw-down effects of other current and projected groundwater uses in the area, including the Schertz/Seguin Local Government Corporation's water well field in western Gonzales County just 5 or so miles away from the SAWS well field.

Guy said landowners whose wells are expected to be impacted will be contacted by SAWS and told that "we need to lower your pump, or drill a well and install pumps and electrics, or do whatever has to be done with your well in order to make sure that you're going to have water and have it in the same quantity that you have today."

Details of the mitigation program are being developed for approval by the SAWS board of trustees. The board-approved plan will be presented later to groundwater districts, local governments and the public.

But Guy said the plan would probably work something like this:

SAWS contractors will consult with landowners to decide which mitigation technique should be used.

If someone in the Bebe area, for example, has a well pump that doesn't reach to the necessary depths, Guy said, it might be decided to lower the pump.

"If that pump doesn't perform to the standards that it should perform to, if (the well owner) had been getting 20 gallons per minute and now he's only getting 15, it's still our problem," Guy said. "We're going to replace that pump so he still gets his 20 gallons per minute."

In some cases, Guy said, well casings may be deep enough but too small to allow for the needed pumps. "What are we going to do about it? We're going to have to drill him a new well. That's the option that we have there."

Guy said it's also possible that well owners near enough to a public water supply could ask to be hooked up to that distribution line.

He said while there are no laws requiring SAWS to institute a mitigation program, the Gonzales County Underground Water Conservation District carries "a hammer" it could use to force the implementation of a mitigation plan. The district could choose not to issue well-production permits for the Carrizo project unless such a mitigation plan were in place, he said.

Arce said water system engineers believe that only wells in the Carrizo Aquifer, from which SAWS will draw its water, will be affected. Shallower wells in the Sparta and Queen City aquifers, which lie above the deep Carrizo, shouldn't be impacted.

At Wednesday's meeting, SAWS representatives also explained plans to acquire easements for the Carrizo project's pipeline.

Right-of-entry letters have been sent to landowners whose properties are along the likely pipeline route.

The letters, if signed by landowners, allow SAWS personnel to come onto private property to evaluate that land as a possible pipeline easement.

SAWS engineer Bill Davis said the process should take four or five months. Construction of the pipeline is expected to begin in fall 2005.

Easements 100 feet wide will be needed. A ten-foot-wide, 12-foot-deep trench will be dug for the 4-and-one-half-foot diameter pipeline.

Davis said the pipeline will be buried and covered and the land above it will be restored to its original condition. SAWS contractors will return if necessary during a one-year period to fill-in any settling that may occur.

"We're going to try to be a good neighbor and impact you as little as possible," said Davis.

Desired properties will be appraised based on comparable sales in the area and landowners will be contacted with offers.

After the pipeline is installed, landowners can use the easement for ranching, farming or other uses, but they cannot build permanent structures such as homes upon it.

After Wednesday's meeting Stockdale Mayor Tony Malik said there is some skepticism and distrust in the community regarding the SAWS project.

He said those feelings are left over from the early stages of regional water planning in the late '90s, when various preliminary water project plans called for "up to a 400-foot draw down" of the water table in the Stockdale area.

Malik said residents have had to fight to get that 400-foot draw down changed.

But during that fight, he said, SAWS "tried to pull the wool over our eyes on a few things. They haven't earned our trust back. They're going to be watched a lot closer than they ever expected to be."

Malik, however, said he believes SAWS' proposed mitigation program is "fair."

He is concerned, though, about who will pay for the long-term operating costs that will be incurred by landowners whose now free-flowing artesian wells will need electricity and pumps to keep them flowing.

"Right now, these people have no expense in operating their wells and no maintenance on the wells to speak of," Malik said. "They will have those long-term expenses."

But Malik said landowners would probably lose their free-flowing artesian wells in years ahead anyway as the area's population grows and more demands are put on groundwater.

"Eventually, they'll be in that position anyway. So, with the mitigation, at least somebody else is paying the big upfront expenses."

For more information on the Gonzales County Carrizo Aquifer Project, log on to the project's Web site at www.gccap.info.

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