Water in Texas-The Crisis Underground

By Erin Flynn
Photography by Bill Albrecht

There’s no mistaking when “Earthquake Katie” of Tecolote Farms is rockin’ the downtown farmers market. After 15 years of feeding Austinites, Katie Kraemer is greeted like family by customers. The vivacious brunette leans over mounds of glossy red peppers, fragrant basil and delicate melons, giving and receiving enthusiastic hugs and kisses. Everyone smiles—even the customers standing four deep. Judging from the love and abundance, you’d never guess that the farm she and her husband, David Pitre, run—one of Austin’s leading organic farms—almost closed due to lack of water.


Recently, Edible Austin invited Tecolote Farm, Boggy Creek Farm, Onion Creek Farm and other small sustainable growers, as well as water and development experts, to participate in a roundtable discussion about the dire water situation in Central Texas. Representatives of local, regional and state organizations included members from the City of Austin’s Environmental and Conservation Program, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and Sustainable Water Texas. Held at the office of former Texas Agricultural Commissioner, Jim Hightower, the discussion was facilitated by Edible Austin’s publisher, Marla Camp.

“This is the second time in two years our wells have gone dry,” reported Larry Butler, co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm. The quick-witted Butler was uncharacteristically grim. He and his wife, Carol Ann Sayle, have faced plenty of natural disasters farming five, in-town, organic acres, but lack of water hasn’t been one of them…until recently.

 

boggy.jpg
 

When they bought their 169-year-old East Austin farm in 1992, there was 12 feet of water in the well. Now, 16 inches makes a good day.

“If we were just five blocks to the west, we’d be pulling water out of Lady Bird Lake,” said Carol Ann, shaking her head. Instead, when their wells went dry, they turned on the city tap. Their relief of having access to water—and not losing their crops—was quickly mitigated, however, by the expense.

As she spoke, I tallied the water bills from my own local farm—Green Gate Farms. Because the city and county do not offer an agricultural rate for water bought by small sustainable growers, we pay as though we’re watering a lawn.

A few miles east of the Boggy Creek Farm “lawn,” our “lawn” of vegetables typically feeds about 500 people a week. But we, too, had to turn on city water to stay in business.

Yet while we were aware of, and accounting for, every precious drop, the Austin American Statesman reported in June that Lance Armstrong had unwittingly used 222,900 gallons of water for his one-acre estate. During that time, through a variety of conservation techniques, Green Gate Farms had scraped by on 80,000 gallons for 2.5 acres of vegetables—about seven times less than what Lance used for his pool and lawn. Despite these efforts, at one point our combined water and wastewater fees were approximately 10 times more than our vegetable sales. But at least we had water.

tecolote.jpg


A few miles east of us, Tecolote Farm was on the brink of disaster. Pumping stations had mushroomed across the street from their 10-acre organic farm and were sucking it dry. Three separate groups were pulling water for their customers: Manville Water Supply and Southwest Water Company, for subdivisions, and Travis County for soccer fields and a new fishing pond. None of them coordinated with each other about how much water they were taking.

Tecolote scrambled, spending upwards of $7,000 for a new well that went dry two months later. In order to stay in business, David and Katie hooked up to a Manville meter and began paying for the water that had once pooled in an aquifer beneath their crops. But this is no long-term solution.

“Without an agricultural rate for purchased water,” David warned, “vegetable farming is not viable.”

The problem is that no organizations exist to regulate water use (like a groundwater conservation district) in their area, and no groups are going to bat to help small farmers secure affordable water. In addition, antiquated laws such as the 1904 Rule of Capture—which grants groundwater to whomever can get it, regardless of how neighbors are affected—put Tecolote and other sustainable growers at the mercy of the deepest straw.

What’s a farmer to do?

We need to push for a shift in understanding the farming paradigm. Before I was a professional grower, I assumed that 1) farmers would simply move further out when cities sprawled, and 2) surely someone smarter than I would fix the water problem.

Now I know I’m wrong on both accounts.

Building healthy soil takes years of effort and expertise. Farmland can’t be considered for organic certification until it has been cultivated without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for three years. But getting that certification is just the first step. Years of careful management and amendments to feed the soil follow. Expecting an organic farmer to blithely walk away from that back-breaking investment is like asking the University of Texas to relocate its football stadium. And as we’re seeing, moving out to the country is no longer a guarantee that water will be waiting when you get there.

The state’s long-term water plan calls for diverting water from rural areas to rapidly growing urban areas. Add rising transportation costs to this mix and suddenly a distant rural farm doesn’t make sense for a business that competes on freshness. This point isn’t lost on California’s large-scale farms in the Salinas Valley. They’re quickly buying land to farm in New England because the days of economically shipping food across the country are numbered.

As for solving the overall water problem in Texas, everyone at the roundtable nodded when water expert and attorney Drew Miller summed it up by saying, “It’s insanely complicated.”

Simply put, groundwater is not regulated together with, or like, surface water. So, when the Blanco River is aboveground, the rules are completely different than when it flows underground. And, in Texas, regardless of whether water is above- or belowground, whoever gets there first wins. With population growth, urban development and climate disturbances, most experts say the time has come not only for new rules but for citizens to prioritize how water is used.

To do this, Miller framed the fundamental issue for the group: “Do we want local, regional or state control of water?” No easy question, especially for agriculture. Typically, Texas’s agricultural decisions favor industrial growers who raise commodities like rice, and who receive steep discounts and subsidies for their immense water usage. Small growers are not included. Nevertheless, decisions must be made, said Miller, and he followed with more questions.

“Do you want to cast your lot with a robust, vigorous regulatory scheme?” he asked. “Or do you want to cast your lot with private ownership of groundwater in place? You can’t have both. You’re going to have to choose.”

As choices are made, the general manager of the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, Kirk Holland, reminded us that the cost of water is likely to climb. Groundwater and surface water are not priced at their market value, he noted, because they are “statutorily suppressed.” For example, he explained that water produced from a groundwater conservation district has price ceilings set by the legislature ranging from 3 to 17 cents per thousand gallons, whereas surface water may be priced as high as 8 dollars per thousand gallons. Yet, in all instances, the price of water focuses more on the buying, transporting and treating of it rather than the value of the commodity itself.

Ultimately, all at the roundtable agreed that change boils down to what people value in their community. For instance, when Tecolote Farm sought to resolve water issues with the county, elected officials said that locally produced food was not valued.

“We were told that agriculture where we are [Austin’s most fertile farming area for 170 years] is not the highest and best use of the land,” said Pitre. “Essentially, he was telling us we should just leave because Travis County does not value agriculture like they do development. My first reaction was…well, I guess we should leave if we’re not valued by the community. If they don’t want us here, then we need to go to a place that values us. But if you look at the amount of money we reinvest into the economy, I would guess that it’s higher, per unit of water, than any other use.”

Fortunately, many of the development and water experts around the table agreed that small farmers are some of the most economical, efficient users of water. Whether by growing food, providing recharge zones or recreation areas, these farmers are sustainability stewards who appreciate the value of water.

Suggestions then percolated about what could be done to keep local, sustainable farmers in business. Ideas included:

Compensating for Ecological Services. Roundtable attendee Patrick Connor, an environmentalist, explained that farmers in France and other countries are paid for their overall ecological services. Rather than focusing on what is farmed, growers are rewarded for fostering biodiversity, providing recreational opportunities (fishing, cooking classes, petting zoo, pick-your-own veggies, harvest festivals and so forth) and allowing rain to recharge aquifers to keep watersheds functioning. For example, ranchers who keep grasses on pasture, rather than overgraze, collect more water and provide a recharge area that benefits those living downstream. “Farmers need to have the value of their environmental efforts and water realized,” Conner said.

Recognizing Advanced Conservation Efforts. All of the farmers admitted to being miserly with their water. As a result, many are experts at conservation techniques—ranging from irrigation drip tape (developed in Israel, which is on the same latitude as Austin), to mulching and rainwater collection. Municipalities could make each sustainable farm a demonstration site for conservation efforts. Payment for this service could offset expenses farmers shoulder alone, such as spending up to $20,000 to drill wells, installing agricultural meters and paying for permits. “Sustainable farmers are practicing efficiencies that we should all be trying to achieve,” said Sierra Club’s Jennifer Walker, an expert on large water users in the state. “By necessity, they are doing more with less, and showing us that there’s so much room for improvement.”

Creating an Organic Corridor. Lynn Sherman, an attorney who has represented landowners for nearly 20 years, suggested establishing areas with protected use of water. For instance, setting aside land along the Colorado River so farmers would have reliable access to water. Sherman also suggested exploring communal use of alluvial wells for organic farms and subsidizing the cost of drilling deeper wells.

Joining a Local Food Policy Board. Spearheaded by Edible Austin’s publisher, Marla Camp, and enthusiastically endorsed and sponsored by city council members Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell and Laura Morrison, as well as Travis County commissioners Sarah Eckhardt and Ron Davis, the newly established Sustainable Food Policy Board promises to keep water policy and reform highlighted in the eyes of decision-makers on a local and county level. “The intention of the board is to provide the city council and Travis County commissioners with policy recommendations on how we can improve our local food system,” said Martinez. Like the local food policy groups in Hartford, Phoenix, Toronto and other cities, Austin’s board examines where its food comes from and how to strengthen local sources. “I want to see more locally grown and produced products in our grocery stores, restaurants and schools,” Martinez continued. “The board is meant to bring together the community and figure out how the city and county can play an active role in making this happen.” Meetings are open to the public and Martinez encourages anyone interested to get involved in the initiatives recommended.

As the roundtable participants left Hightower’s office, all felt as if an important first step had been made. We’ve called attention to the dire water situation in Central Texas, but more change must come from people who care about local food. Without policies to support the infrastructure sustainable farms need to survive, it’s quite possible that our local family farms and farmers markets will vanish.

There’s not a moment to waste if we want to keep Katie rockin’ at the market. If you value local food, vote with your fork. Buy local and raise hell. Your sustainable farmer is counting on you.