Texas, in mid August, was experiencing its second-driest year in 128 years, but recent rains have raised that level to the 11th driest year to date, affecting 23.9 million people across the state, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

San Antonio, and unincorporated Bexar County to the north get their water through the San Antonio Water System, which pumps 50% of its water from the Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer has seen water levels significantly drop—down to levels not seen since 2014.

Cities across North San Antonio and Central Texas may see increased water restrictions in the future as the drought worsens across South Central Texas due to a lack of rainfall and high temperatures, according to the National Weather Service.

The San Antonio area received 2.1 inches of rain in August and another 0.98 inches of rain as of Sept. 14, bringing the total to 8.20 inches of rain so far this year, which is over 14.5 inches below the normal average, National Weather Service Meteorologist Orlando Bermudez said.

On Sept. 14, the National Drought Mitigation Center reported 78.4% of Texas has been designated at some level of drought, with abnormally dry (D0) being the lowest level, and exceptional drought (D4) being the highest. Recent rains have dropped the level to 0.6% of Texas being in D4, compared to the 87.99% of Texas that experienced D4 conditions in early October 2011, the last time the state experienced this level of drought. Bexar County is in D3, or extreme drought.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority remains in Stage 3 of its critical period management plan—more commonly thought of as water restrictions—which requires anyone permitted to pump water to reduce their usage by 35%. Since late July, the EAA has been teetering between Stage 3 and Stage 4 restrictions, briefly tipping into Stage 4 for six days in mid-August, officials said. Stage 4 requires a 40% reduction in permitted pumping levels.

More than 2.5 million people; eight endangered species and several more on the threatened list; and other animals depend on the water from the Edwards Aquifer, which has been identified as one of the largest and most unique aquifers in the world by Texas Parks & Wildlife.

The J-17 Index Well in Bexar County is used to monitor and track water levels in the aquifer and correlates closely to flow levels from Comal Springs. The J-17 Index Well is over 23 feet below the historic average values for the summer months in the region, according to the Edwards Aquifer Authority.

It would take a significant amount of rain in the northwest region of Central Texas to allow drought restrictions to be lifted. If the area does not have any rainy seasons leading up to next summer, a dry climate will continue, according to EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz.

“Short of significant rainfall between now and the start of next year, we’re going to find ourselves where we are today, except earlier in the year,” Ruiz said. “Because we may not come out of any stage of critical period if we don’t have rainfall.”

Stepping up enforcement

The San Antonio Water System, which provides water for San Antonio and most of Bexar County, as well as Hollywood Park, Shavano Park and Hill Country Village, has remained in Stage 2 restrictions since April. SAWS officials attribute the utility’s ability to avoid stricter watering rules for its customers to its greater water diversity, citing that only about 50% of its water comes from the Edwards Aquifer, SAWS Water Conservation Director Karen Guz said.

The other 50% is a mix of the Vista Ridge pipeline, the Trinity Aquifer, Canyon Lake, the Carrizo Aquifer, other sources and even recycled and stored water, Guz said.

“We have the resources to stay out of more severe drought restrictions,” Guz said. “We are highly diversified off the Edwards Aquifer; we are actively using our other resources to reduce our pumping off the Edwards Aquifer.”

With ongoing drought conditions, though, customers must strictly adhere to the Stage 2 rules, and that has been a problem for some residents on the city’s north side, SAWS Communication Manager Anne Hayden said.

“We can stay in Stage 2, but we need people on the north side to follow Stage 2 rules,” Hayden said.

Guz said homeowners can often overwater when the grass turns brown and brittle, but that most developers when building new homes plant drought-resistant grass.

“It [has been] extraordinarily hot and dry, and we have people that are worried about their lawns, but we want to assure them it will survive,” Guz said. “With cooler weather and some rain it will green up again.”

SAWS officials have been working to remind residents of the Stage 2 restrictions and to notify them that they are stepping up enforcement by patrolling neighborhoods and looking for those violating the rules. Violators can expect a citation with a fine, not a warning, Guz said.

Residents can anonymously report a suspected violation by filling out a form at www.saws.org/waterwaste.

In Stage 2, watering days remain the same as Stage 1, and correspond to a resident’s address. Addresses that end in a 0 or 1 may water on Mondays; 2 or 3 may water on Tuesdays; 4 or 5 on Wednesdays; 6 or 7 is Thursdays; and residents with addresses that end in 8 or 9 can water on Fridays.

Watering is allowed from 7-11 a.m. and 7-11 p.m. on the designated day using a sprinkler, irrigation system or soaker hose. Watering with a handheld hose is allowed at any time and on any day, according to the SAWS website.

The biggest culprit of water waste, Guz and Hayden said, is an automatic irrigation system, which can put out up to 70% more water than a handheld hose.

So far this year, through mid-August, the SAWS has issued 1,400 citations, which can carry a fine of up to $150 for a first-time offense.

“We know where the high use is,” Guz said. “If you’re violating rules, there’s a good chance you will get caught.”

Guz said water irrigation systems, and in particular the controllers, can be confusing to homeowners.

They must be completely cleared of old programming to be reset, she said. Controllers are often set up to water by zones, but programming cannot be overwritten, and instead homeowners mistakenly add additional watering times and days to the same zones.

SAWS offers a free program where homeowners can schedule an appointment for an irrigation system consultation, and the consultant can even program the controller for them.

The consultation includes an evaluation of the homeowner’s irrigation system, their landscaping and plant materials, plus a review of any SAWS rebates or coupons the customer may qualify for.

Homeowners can call 210-704-SAVE (7283) to schedule a consultation.

Water conservation plans

During the second half of August, the San Antonio area has received scattered rain just as the Edwards Aquifer Authority was preparing to declare Stage 4 of its Critical Period Management Plan to enforce permit reductions to the region.

The plan is put in place to help sustain aquifer and spring flow levels during times of drought by temporarily reducing the authorized withdrawal amounts of Edwards Aquifer permit holders, which includes utility companies.

In Stage 4 of the plan, permit holders in Bexar County must reduce their annual authorized pumping by 40%. In Stage 3, pumping is reduced by 35%.

Those minor rain events enabled the EAA to hold to Stage 3 restrictions, officials announced Aug. 18.

Chad Norris—deputy executive manager of environmental science for the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority Canyon Reservoir and Trinity Aquifer, as well as a member of the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan Science Committee—said when drought conditions are persistent or spring flows reach a lower output, certain measures of the conservation plan are implemented.

“Some of those measures involve using alternative water sources, reducing reliance on the [Edwards Aquifer] itself,” Norris said. “And those are all designed to maintain spring flows and make sure that they don’t get below a threshold that we have identified as needed to reduce the impacts to [aquatic] species.”

Norris said he expects some of the bigger impacts of the drought to be in the smaller tributaries in Texas that do not have springs to provide base flows.

“We have plans like the Edwards Aquifer HCP. Water providers have drought contingency plans; municipalities and others have drought measures that they take to reduce water use,” Norris said. “I feel like, in general, we are prepared and not unaccustomed to droughts like we’re experiencing now. But with every drought, you’re always just waiting for the next rainfall.”

Habitat conservation plan

The negative effects of the ongoing drought are not limited to water suppliers and municipalities. The EAA is also responsible for managing spring flows that provide habitats for endangered and threatened species.

Habitat protection has been a part of the EAA’s mission since its inception. The creation of the EAA was part of Texas law put in place after the Sierra Club filed suit in 1991 against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “citing negligence to provide the necessary protection required by the Endangered Species Act.”

Today, the EAA uses the Edwards Aquifer Habitat Conservation Plan—which was first approved by the USFWS in 2013—to govern how the authority will protect those species that live in the Edwards Aquifer a well as the Comal and San Marcos springs that are federally listed as endangered and threatened, said Scott Storment, executive director for the EAA Threatened and Endangered Species Department and the program manager for the EAHCP.

There are seven endangered species and one threatened species on the list, he said.

With the conservation plan, the USFWS also issued a 15-year Incidental Take Permit that provides authorization to those entities that hold permits under the Endangered Species Act to pump an approved amount of water from the aquifer, Storment said.

Permittees include the EAA and the cities of San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio through the San Antonio Water System as well as Texas State University. That 15-year permit is set to expire in 2028, he said.

The EAHCP, through its committees, began in August an extensive five-year process leading up to the renewal application due in 2028. They began with a series of listen and learn sessions to involve stakeholders and the public, Storment said.

Ideally, the new application will be for a 30-year permit, he said, but that has yet to be determined and is affected by things that are still unknown.

“Climate change is a big factor,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and vulnerability of what is going to happen in that 30 years. We’re taking it very seriously and undergoing intense modeling. It’s all linked together.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly listed the number of endangered and threatened species that live in the Edwards Aquifer area. It has been corrected.

Listen & Learn sessions

The Edwards Aquifer Authority Habitat Conservation Plan Listen & Learn sessions are a chance for the public and stakeholders to provide feedback as the EAA works to update the plan and request a new permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Climate Change & System Vulnerability

Sept. 22, 3:30-6:30 p.m.

Dunbar Recreation Center, 801 W. Martin Luther King Drive, San Marcos

Conservation Measures

Oct. 4, 3:30-6:30 p.m.

Civic Center, 375 S. Castell Ave., Garden Room, New Braunfels