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In District 10, Worry on Both Sides of Debate Over Private Wells

Photo credits (L to R, top to bottom): Filipa Rodrigues for KUT, , Filipa Rodrigues for KUT and

This election, Austinites are voting in 10 different geographically drawn city council districts. So, we’ve been taking a look at each of the city's 10 new districts.

In the final installment in our series, KUT's Joy Diaz takes a look at District 10, which covers Tarrytown, Spicewood Springs Road, Northwest Hills and ends just at U.S. Highway 183.

There are many issues District 10 neighbors would like the new Austin City Council to address, but water is one that gets folks here pretty animated. Specifically, how the city addresses the drilling of private wells.

Jim Blair is president of Bee Cave Drilling. We meet at a home where his crew is hard at work.

“The national average for a water well is 125 feet deep. That's not a very expensive well,” Blair says. “But here we are sitting at a job-site where we are going to drill 780 feet deep.”

Water wells are concentrated in affluent neighborhoods; many of them are in District 10.

“On average it takes several years, sometimes a decade or two, to even pay them back,” he says.

It's been a year since the city of Austin passed an ordinance asking water well owners to register with the city.

At the time, the Watershed Department said it wanted to keep an eye on how much water was being pumped from underground. But neighbors feared it was just a way to impose future restrictions.
Elizabeth Harris lives in District 10. She takes me through a sliding door that leads to Lake Austin. Harris says she and her neighbors worry about the drought. That's why some of them are drilling new wells. Harris' second home is on the Pedernales River. She used to rent it as a water-front property, but can’t anymore.

“We, I guess, can't technically even say ‘waterfront,’" she jokes

Harris has not considered drilling a well, but she wants to re-landscape her home with drought-resistant plants. Harris is a native Austinite, but as a child she remembers flying to Phoenix, Arizona. Every time she'd step off the plane, she'd be in shock

“This is so hot! And I would look at the landscaping and think, ‘This is so different!’ And now, I'm pretty much embracing it," she says. "We are pretty much the next Phoenix."

Harris hopes Austin's drought conditions improve but she doesn't see herself going back to having a lush lawn at her home.

Historically, in times of drought, more and more Austinites have opted for drilling. Jim Blair from Bee Cave Drilling says Travis and surrounding counties started documenting the drilling 7 years ago. He looks at the archive on his phone. A map pops up – around 4,900 wells, he says.

So far, neighbors can set whatever pressure they want on their wells, but they worry the time will come when the city will want to regulate that.

Another point of contention is the money. For every well that is drilled, the city loses money in water fees. That's why – in the ordinance – the city gave itself some wiggle room to impose future fees on well-owners. The next Austin City Council may get a chance to decide that issue.

Eight candidates are running for District 10.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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