The fate of Jacob’s Well, a shimmering spring that forms the headwaters of the creek that cuts through this quaint Hill Country town, is at the center of a skirmish involving developers, environmentalists and the local groundwater district.
The developer, Wimberley Springs Partners, which has owned property in the vicinity of the spring for about a decade, wants permission to pump more underground water from the Trinity aquifer, the same one that feeds Jacob’s Well, for a growing subdivision and a new golf course. But an environmental group, the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association, says more pumping could dry up the spring, thus robbing Cypress Creek, a tributary of the Blanco River, of water.
“We believe that if you supplied water (to the subdivision), Jacob’s Well would stop flowing,” said David Baker, executive director of the watershed association.
Despite having survived the drought of the 1950s, the spring has gone dry several times over the past dozen years — Baker blames increased groundwater pumping as the region has grown.
Central Texas is riddled with underground aquifers, oddly shaped, vast, limestone-encased caverns recharged by rainfall. Across the region, whether it be the Trinity, the Edwards Aquifer, or others, the question has become whether these natural buckets can sustain the number of straws sucking out their water.
In the annals of Central Texas water struggles, this dispute distinguished itself after a judge last month excoriated the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, established to regulate pumping in the region, because it denied the watershed association and some Wimberley residents their request to contest the permit it had granted to the developers.
Having examined the district’s own rules, Judge Dwight Peschel, a senior judge of the state’s 25th Judicial District, decided the Hays Trinity board’s action was “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.”
The scolding wasn’t on the merits of whether further pumping would dry up Jacob’s Well, but about how the board handled a permit protest by the watershed association.
In February 2011, the board had decided in a 3-2 vote to allow Wimberley Springs Partners to pump as much as 160 million gallons as it set about building a long-platted golf course and prepared to build more houses on its subdivision just north of Wimberley.
That’s enough water to satisfy the annual needs of about 1,500 average Austin homes.
Some Wimberley residents and the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association then sought a contested case hearing to block the permit. The case has hinged on whether advice from the district’s staff to association members that they could still file protests — even if that advice might be wrong — effectively extended the deadline to protest the permit.
The request was filed in a timely fashion and in accordance “with the board’s then-existing interpretation of its own rules,” according to a lawyer representing the Wimberley residents and the association.
But the board balked. In April 2011, it denied the request for a contested case hearing on the grounds that it was filed too late.
The board’s president, a rancher named Jimmy Skipton, didn’t return a call and email for comment. His mission, according to a bio he wrote in 2012, is “to protect our groundwater and the rights of landowners in Hays County.”
In November 2012, the watershed association and some Wimberley residents sued the district in Hays district court.
In a joint filing with the developer, which voluntarily added itself as a defendant, a lawyer for the groundwater district wrote that because they missed a deadline, the “plaintiffs do not have standing in this court, and their attempts to argue the merits of the District’s decision to grant an operating permit to Wimberley Springs are improper and should be overruled.”
But the judge wrote that “Plaintiffs’ relying on what was told to them by (the groundwater district) was reasonable,” since one of the district’s rules doesn’t specify when the request must be filed.
Winton Porterfield, vice president of Wimberley Springs Partners, said the developers want to be good stewards of the land.
The groundwater is meant to irrigate the proposed golf course only until enough treated effluent can be collected from new homes to feed the course, he said. The permit grants far less water than is usually required by two golf courses — Wimberley Springs already operates another golf course in the area — and the developers plan to use only drought-tolerant plants around the course, he added.
The subdivision currently has about 1,000 homes, though it could build as many as 1,800 more. The new course is essential to the subdivision’s identity, Porterfield said.
“Property values are dependent on that amenity to keep them up,” he said. “It’s a golf course community. We want to have something that encourages a healthy, active lifestyle.”
But Malcolm Harris, president of the watershed association, said that if Jacob’s Well dries up, it could have economic consequences for Wimberley, with its shops, chock-full of collectibles, vintage clothes and scented candles, and for its most famous swimming hole — Blue Hole — strung along Cypress Creek. Water from the creek, seeping back underground, has also been tracked to Austin’s Barton Springs.
A contested case hearing “would be an opportunity to present scientific evidence on the impact of granting a permit,” Harris said.
Russ Johnson, an attorney for Wimberley Spring Partners, said he plans to appeal the judge’s decision.