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Amid a Trickle of Regulation, Private Wells Surging in Austin

Karen Bernstein for KUT News

The ongoing drought in Central Texas sapped the green out of many lawns – and spurred private well drilling in Austin. It’s a costly and fairly unregulated way for homeowners to get at the water from the aquifer below. 

Computer records held by the state are backlogged and numbers are unreliable, but the Texas Water Development Board estimates that more than 150 wells have been drilled in Austin since 2006. At least 50 of those wells were drilled in the 78703 zip code. That encompasses West Austin, Tarrytown, and Pemberton Heights.

In October of last year, the City of Austin passed a water well ordinance. It requires homeowners to register a new well within 70 days of drilling and regulates backflow to protect city water lines from contamination. Daryl Slusher is the Assistant Director for Environmental Affairs and Conservation at Austin Water Utility. He says it’s a first step in an overall water conservation plan.

“They are concerned about the amount of wells people are using and amounts of water being used but this ordinance does not in any way regulate how much water people can take out of their wells,” Slusher says. “It does not meter them.”

South of the Colorado River, the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has a tight hold on permitting for any well drilling.

“But north of the river,” Slusher says, “there’s not a groundwater district and since there’s not a ground water district, there’s not a level of information about the aquifer levels.”

Jim Blair has drilled approximately 250 wells each year for the last two years. He’s the manager of Bee Cave Drilling in Dripping Springs.    

“We do not have to get permits. We simply drill the well and file a drilling report within 60 days and the homeowners get to use all the water they can get,” says Jim Blair.

Tarrytown homeowner Barbara Botts can’t help but notice the drilling. There’s a 45-foot derrick just two houses down from her home. 

“ I believe that the aquifer belongs to everyone,” Botts says. “That when people who have the means take water out of the aquifer they are basically appropriating for themselves the water supply for all of the citizens.”

Bee Caves Drilling estimates that the average private well cost between $20 and $35,000 to drill. Barbara Botts asks if homeowners shelling out so much money for a well might be planning to use it for drinking at some point.

“If there were a time that we could not get water you can be sure we’d go knock on that door.”

Austin Water is scheduled to release information on the number of wells drilled and the effect on the Edwards Aquifer to city council later this year. You can learn more about Austin Water’s well program online.

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