In Drought-Stricken Texas, Hunt for Water Heads Deeper Underground

BY Saskia de Melker  March 20, 2012 at 1:47 PM EDT

This week, the NewsHour will be looking at water shortages in Texas as part of our new series, Coping with Climate Change. Watch our report from Texas on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast, and take a look at our first post: ‘Cloud Juice’ Is One Man’s Solution to the Drought

DRIPPING SPRINGS, Texas | Lately, the Central Texas company Bee Cave Drilling has been flooded with calls sharing a common complaint: wells have stopped pumping water.

A year of severe drought has taken its toll on the estimated 1 million water wells that stretch across Texas. The water table is depleted, and many of the wells are too shallow. And that means a lot of work for well drillers and pump installers like Charles Barnard. He was working yet another Saturday when we met him.

There are nine major and 21 minor aquifers percolating underneath Texas. According to the Texas Water Development Board, these reservoirs provide 60 percent of the 16.1 million acre-feet of water used in the state. (An acre-foot is the amount of water covering 1 acre of land to a depth of 1 foot – that’s enough water to flood a football field.) And these aquifers depend entirely on rainfall for replenishment.

Click the map to see the major aquifers of Texas

Map of Major Texas Aquifers

Map from Texas Water Development Board

The drought’s damage to the state’s underground water reservoirs has been severe. Groundwater maps produced by NASA show unusually low storage levels in Texas, with Central Texas aquifers hit particularly hard. According to NASA and the National Drought Mitigation Center, it could take months or longer to recharge these aquifers, and that’s only if Texas has a period of sustained and significant rainfall.

While last week’s rain brought some relief to the parched aquifers, the long-term outlook is less optimistic. Climate models project that rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall could mean continued drought in the future for Texas, according to state climatologist John Neilson-Gammon.

And for Barnard’s customers, tapping water from a dry well means drilling deeper. The wells average about 600 feet, but can range anywhere between 60 feet to 1,260 feet depending on location. There are approximately 200 feet between zones in aquifers underground — that’s how much farther drillers have to go on average to hit water in an aquifer when the zone above is dry. But Barnard says there are no guarantees, especially in a drought.

“We tell customers everyday, we can only give you what Mother Nature provides. If she’s not providing it, then we can’t give it to you.” Barnard said.

He’s also getting more calls from those who want brand new private wells. In Texas, groundwater is considered private property of the landowner, and many want to tap into the water deep beneath their land in order to avoid the water restrictions on public systems in times of drought. “A lot of people want to have their own supply of water to keep on watering their lawns and gardens,” Barnard said.

It might not be long before that right to groundwater is curtailed. In West Texas, farmers who rely on groundwater are now fighting new regulations that limit the amount of water they can pump from the Ogallala Aquifer.

For now, homeowners that want Bee Cave Drilling to dig them a private well will have to wait their turn: the company currently has a five-month waiting list for new drills. And as spring and summer loom on the horizon with little water in reserve, Barnard could be working a lot more weekends.

“If we get another summer like last summer, we’re going to be in trouble,” Barnard said, “and there’s going to be a lot of people who are really going to freak out when they wake up one morning, and they turn on their faucet, and they’ve run out of water.”

Do you think about where your water comes from? What concerns do you have about how your water source will cope with a changing climate? Share your stories and insights here.