Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Will Texas run out of groundwater? Experts explain how drought taps out water wells.
Water levels in wells across Texas are running low because of the extreme drought, groundwater experts say.
Drought conditions in the state are getting worse by the week. As of July 28, 97% of Texas was in a drought, affecting 24.1 million Texans, per the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“A lot of public supply wells and a lot of even domestic wells have started going dry,” Natalie Ballew, director of the groundwater division at the Texas Water Development Board, told the Star-Telegram.
Many communities, specifically in Central Texas, are experiencing significant water supply issues and they’re having to truck water in from other places, Ballew said. That includes areas like Concan and Utopia in Uvalde County, and Leakey in Real County. That’s causing a myriad of issues for those residents, with ranchers going as far as selling off their cattle because they don’t have water for them.
In North Texas, because people pump more water in the summer, groundwater levels usually start falling around April or May and then come back up in September. Because of the drought, that decline has become much steeper this summer, says Doug Shaw, general manager at the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. The district serves the counties of Hood, Montague, Parker and Wise.
In one area where levels are measured in real-time, Peaster in Parker County, water levels from July 2 to 24 fell 1.75 feet. Usually, the water level in that region will decline that much over the entire summer, instead of in just a few weeks. That could be indicative of a larger decline in the water table, Shaw says.
What are the signs that a water well is impacted by drought?
Water levels decline for two reasons, Ballew says. The first is in drought conditions, when water levels decline because we depend on rainfall to infiltrate down into our aquifers and refill them. Another way a water well can run low is from pumping in surrounding areas. If you have increased pumping going on in one location, that’s going to decrease the water level of that well, as well as impact nearby wells.
How can you tell if your well level is declining because of your neighbor’s increased pumping, extreme drought conditions, or both?
“If you’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have a bunch of pumping going on from irrigation and you’re seeing your water level decline, that could be an indication that it’s drought related,” Ballew explained. It also depends on how far down your well goes. If you have a shallow well located near a river, and your water level runs low, you can assume it’s related to the drought.
With extreme drought, water wells can run dry. You can tell your water well is running dry when your pump isn’t working well or if your water quality is poor, Ballew says. You might start to notice a lot more sand, sediment or air in the pump, Shaw says.
To have enough coverage for a typical well, you should have about 40 to 100 feet of water above the pump, Shaw says.
Can I drill a well on my property?
Texas operates under what’s called a “rule of capture,” which means if you own the land, you can drill a well there. If you’re located within a groundwater conservation district, however, you’ll have to abide by their regulations on groundwater withdrawal. That may include getting a permit to drill the well, registering the well with the district, and/or getting a production permit so that they can manage how much is getting pumped out. In Texas, there are 98 of these districts, covering nearly 70% of the state, according to the Texas Water Development Board.
The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District has the following requirements:
- You must register your new well prior to drilling.
- Property must be at least 2 acres.
- Well must be drilled at least 50 feet from the nearest property line.
- Well must be drilled at least 150 ft away from any other registered wells.
The Northern Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which covers Tarrant County, has these requirements:
- All wells drilled after Oct. 1, 2010, must be registered.
- Unless exempt, you’ll need to get an operating permit from the district prior to drilling, construction or operating of the well. An exempt well is a well that is not a public water supply well and not capable of producing more than 17.36 gallons per minute or is used solely for domestic, livestock, poultry, or agricultural purposes. A non-exempt well is a well capable of producing more than 17.36 gallons per minute, and must submit semi-annual water well production reports to the District at a rate of $0.155 per 1,000 gallons.
- For non-exempt wells, you’re required to report groundwater production no later than Jan. 31 and July 31 for the previous 6-month periods each year.
- A person who drilled, deepened, completed or otherwise altered a well shall, within 60 days after the date the well is completed, file a well report.
If you do plan on drilling a well on your property, make sure you have a licensed water well driller do it, Ballew says, as they’re often familiar with the groundwater resources in the area.
Can you use well water during a drought?
While you can still use water from a well even if the level has dropped, conserving the water during a drought should be a priority so that it doesn’t run dry.
“In times of drought, when people with private wells or public water supply wells are pumping more and more often, then you never get this opportunity for the wells to kick off and the water levels to come back up,” Shaw says. “And then so what that does is over a larger area, you will see a decline in the water table.”
Eighty to 90% of the groundwater produced is used for lawn irrigation. To conserve, minimize outdoor water tools like sprinklers. Instead, use a soaker hose or another efficient tool to water your yard, Shaw says.
To find out if your water level is running low, you can get your well sampled by your local groundwater conservation district every three months at no charge.
How long does it take a well to replenish water?
The good news — once we get rain, wells that have gone dry do rebound. “It’s not going to be dry forever,” Ballew says.
But how quickly wells replenish after the dry season can vary. Some aquifers, like the Edwards Aquifer In Central Texas, respond really quickly to precipitation.
For other aquifers, like the sand-based Upper Trinity Aquifer, it takes time for the rainfall to actually get down into it, so you would need much more consistent rain. There has to be complete saturation before water passes into the aquifer, Shaw says. Water levels will rebound, however, when people aren’t pumping as much water, usually around wintertime.
“Right now what we’re seeing is a seasonal decline. Water levels are dropping as water is moving from the aquifer towards pumping centers, towards areas where a lot of water is being pumped,” Shaw said. “Once we get to a time of the year where people aren’t watering their lawns, there is less water traveling towards the pumping centers, you will see water levels come back up.”
Although rain is the easiest way to replenish the water, there are two other long-term solutions. One way is through a “managed aquifer recharge,” which floods an area with water using a different source like surface water and lets it infiltrate down into the aquifer. Another is aquifer storage and recovery, where you take water, pump it down into an aquifer and store it for later use.
What causes wells to run dry?
Shaw says we’ll likely see a lot more wells going dry this year. There are a number of reasons why your well may go dry, and they’re more pronounced this summer with the amount of pumping and the drought.
“As far as people’s wells going dry and having to replace their wells, it could be a situation a lot of it is maybe the well was drilled 20, 30, 40 years ago, and water levels were significantly higher than they are now. And so the well had plenty of water in it and now it doesn’t,” Shaw says. “You see another scenario where maybe the well just wasn’t drilled deep enough to begin with, maybe they didn’t fully penetrate the aquifer when they drilled the well, so it never had enough coverage or water above the pump. But this year has been extra stressful on the pump, and maybe it wasn’t able to keep up.”
If your water well runs dry, try to drill deeper into your existing well. If you can’t get any water that way, you’ll have to drill a new well elsewhere. In some instances, you may be able to drill just a mile away, but that may not work in all areas. Or you may need a smaller pump so that there’s enough water above the pump, Shaw says. Reach out to your county or local groundwater conservation district to get some assistance, Ballew recommends.