In March of 1991, Ronald Pucek Jr. had discovered the right place to drill for water at his 500-acre property southwest of San Antonio.
A earlier properly had produced modestly, however Pucek knew he wanted extra water to satisfy his dream: an enormous aquaculture operation producing the best catfish in Texas.
“There was a big oak tree in the middle of nowhere,” Pucek, then 32, recalled in a telephone interview final week. “I thought, ‘Okey dokey, let’s do it right there.’”
It proved to be the fitting spot. Because the drill reduce into rock 1,670 ft deep, a geyser of water shot up out of the bottom, throwing rocks into the air and breaking off a bit of the drill rig. Somebody snapped a photograph of Pucek standing close to the properly, water raining down on prime of him.
“It felt good at the time,” stated Pucek, now 60, recalling his nicely wanting like a Texas oil gusher “like you see in the movies at Spindletop.”
“Little did I know that would be my demise,” he continued.
The nicely was the most important recognized artesian properly within the U.S., producing 37,000 gallons per minute — greater than 53 million gallons per day — from the Edwards Aquifer.
That was sufficient to provide a fourth of San Antonio’s use on the time, in accordance with water officers.
The large quantity of water thrust Pucek straight right into a collection of long-running conflicts over the Edwards Aquifer, the area’s essential water supply.
In 1991, these struggles started to boil over. The result was a set of laws meant to protect the aquifer for all who rely upon it. Immediately, the town’s water conservation efforts, its variety of water provides, its use of recycled water, and even the form of metropolis limits all got here out of battles over the aquifer.
Within the early 2000s, the San Antonio Water System paid greater than $30 million to accumulate all the water rights that Pucek obtained by means of these new laws. They added as much as 22,500 acre-feet per yr, or 7.three billion gallons.
As we speak, that quantity of Edwards water would value almost $123.eight million, in line with SAWS.
The stays of Pucek’s catfish farm nonetheless sit on the property, the concrete basins now overgrown with brush and prickly pear. Since SAWS bought the land and water rights, not a lot has occurred on the website.
That was till final week, when SAWS introduced one other drilling rig to the property on the Medina River close to Loop 1604 and Previous Pearsall Street. This time, the rig can be used to cease extra water from ever flowing up from the properly once more.
Involved concerning the deteriorating casing and wellhead from the recent, mineral-laden water within the nicely, SAWS officers determined to make use of mud, gravel, and concrete to plug it. After the plugging, the property is ultimately slated to grow to be a San Antonio River Authority park.
“It’s time to get this one done,” stated SAWS undertaking coordinator Kevin Morrison, who was supervising the plugging operations on the website final week.
Pucek had no concept any of this is able to occur. As he tells it, he simply needed to boost some high quality catfish.
As a younger entrepreneur from Alvin, south of Houston, Pucek bought the 500 acres close to San Antonio for a spot to maintain 1,500 dairy cows he had acquired. (“It’s a long story,” he stated.)
After he bought off the cattle, Pucek determined to get into the aquaculture enterprise. He knew of a giant catfish farm not removed from his hometown, and he thought he might make a superb dwelling elevating catfish and promoting them to giant meat corporations.
He shortly discovered an investor, New Jersey developer Louis Blumberg. They named the operation Dwelling Waters Artesian Springs.
With plans to construct a collection of concrete basins and a feeding system, Pucek set about discovering the water he wanted to make all of it work.
The properly he drilled turned out completely. Not solely did it produce large quantities, however the water got here out at a continuing heat temperature between 80 and 92 levels Fahrenheit, good for sustaining wholesome catfish.
“They all look like little Arnold Schwarzeneggers,” Pucek stated of his first crop, a set of uniformly muscular fish he raised throughout his first and solely season in the summertime of 1991.
By October, he stated, that they had bought greater than one million kilos of fish to varied eating places. If that they had ramped as much as full manufacturing, he estimates it might have produced 20 to 25 million kilos of fish per yr.
“It was a real deal, unlike what they wanted to say in the papers,” Pucek stated. “It might have been one of many largest financial turbines on the South Aspect.”
However not lengthy after water officers discovered how a lot Pucek’s nicely was producing, they began making an attempt to close him down. The large water utilization, for many individuals, merely wasn’t acceptable.
Results on the aquifer
In these days, San Antonio’s solely supply of water was the Edwards Aquifer. The limestone rock layer stretches from Kinney County to north of Austin and holds huge portions of water. A few of this water flows as much as the floor in glowing springs, like people who type the headwaters of rivers just like the Comal and San Marcos.
Conflicts over the aquifer had lengthy been broiling within the area, particularly since Texas’ historic drought of the 1950s. The aquifer’s huge measurement however restricted quantity led to preventing amongst city San Antonio, farmers in Uvalde and Medina counties, and the spring communities of New Braunfels and San Marcos.
For years, repeated makes an attempt to seek out an alternate supply of water for San Antonio failed. The San Antonio Metropolis Council voted down a deal to purchase water from Canyon Lake in 1976, and a public vote in 1991 killed the Applewhite challenge that might have created a reservoir south of the town.
Pucek’s properly added a way of urgency to the water state of affairs. After it began producing, water officers instantly observed a gentle drop in aquifer ranges, SAWS Chief Working Officer Steve Clouse stated.
“You could just see a daily drop, whereas you normally saw fluctuations in the Edwards on a day-to-day basis, like we see today,” Clouse stated.
Regardless of the huge quantity of water going to at least one property, it didn’t take lengthy for legal professionals to conclude that Pucek’s properly was completely authorized beneath a precept often known as the rule of seize.
A holdover from English widespread regulation, the rule of seize can also be recognized in water circles because the “law of the biggest straw.” It shields landowners from legal responsibility from pumping the water under their land, no matter the way it impacts their neighbors’ wells.
Pucek’s use of water certified as a “beneficial use,” which means it was truthful recreation, stated Greg Ellis, a water lawyer who represents groundwater districts across the state. Beneath the rule of seize, authorities can solely cease waste, malicious conduct, or pumping that negligently causes the land to sink, Ellis stated.
“There was nothing they could do to stop the pumping based on the impact to the Edwards Aquifer,” Ellis stated.
For a lot of the 20th century, this authorized precept labored in San Antonio’s favor. For the town to develop, a developer or utility merely needed to stick a brand new straw into a special a part of the aquifer, and a spiderweb of neighborhoods and companies would weave itself across the properly.
“San Antonio basically always took my opinion that [groundwater is] a property right,” Pucek stated. “Then once I acquired my property proper, they needed to take it away from me.”
Water fights of 1991
That sort of uncontrolled pumping was having drastic results on the springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. In Might 1991, solely two months after Pucek’s nicely got here in, the Sierra Membership sued in federal courtroom to cease the pumping beneath the Endangered Species Act.
Within the lawsuit, the environmental group argued that overpumping of the Edwards was threatening endangered salamanders, fish, and different species that depend upon aquifer-fed springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. The lawsuit later expanded to incorporate San Antonio and different entities.
The lawsuit was really the “federal hammer” that threatened to smash San Antonio’s progress, as SAWS President and CEO Robert Puente put it. A federal decide, Senior U.S. Decide Lucius D. Bunton III, dominated within the Sierra Membership’s favor in 1993, spurring Texas to enact laws to guard the aquifer.
However as a result of the lawsuit targeted on obscure critters that few individuals ever see, it wasn’t as efficient at galvanizing motion as Pucek’s catfish farm properly.
“The catfish farm got it into a very visual way of seeing what the problem was,” stated Puente, a former state consultant who gained his first election to the Texas Home in 1990. “That helped tremendously to let our community know that we needed to do something. We needed to agree to some regulations.”
San Antonio’s enterprise leaders started assembly frequently to debate the aquifer, Puente stated.
“It was an incredible effort,” he stated. “You’re talking about what was on the city’s agenda at the time, it was water. We had to resolve this water issue or San Antonio would really suffer dire consequences.”
From Pucek’s viewpoint, San Antonio officers and the information media unfairly made him the face of water greed.
“Every time they needed something to rile up somebody, they showed that picture of [the well] squirting 30 feet in the air,” he stated.
Although Puente didn’t win election on a water platform, he stated native enterprise mogul Pink McCombs informed him throughout a fundraiser that as a South Sider, he can be well-suited to assist clear up the town’s water points.
“The community [was] lucky to have someone from the South Side advocating all of these water interests, because it gets colored into a North Side-South Side fight,” Puente stated. “That did give the community some assurance that what we were doing, what I was doing, was for the betterment of the entire community.”
Throughout a particular session of the Texas Legislature that summer time, Puente tried to cross laws that might have shut down Pucek’s properly.
It didn’t work at first. On the time, the facility of the Legislature was much more concentrated in rural Texas than it’s at the moment, Puente stated. Many legislators didn’t recognize the freshman Home member’s try and affect water use on personal land.
“I walked into a buzz saw,” Puente stated. “I didn’t hit the century club, which is 100 votes against you, but it was a very lopsided vote.”
Puente did achieve passing laws to manage future wells like Pucek’s, and it helped launch him right into a political profession centered round water. He later turned chair of the Home Pure Assets Committee, earlier than turning into the top of SAWS in 2008.
“At least it was a half of a victory,” Puente stated. “But the overall attempt to shut the well down did not prevail.”
Later in 1991, water authorities did handle to close down Pucek’s farm, citing him for not having a correct allow to discharge water containing fish waste into the Medina River.
Pucek stated he had all the time needed San Antonio to have the ability to use his water after he’d completed with it and discharged it into the Medina River. He additionally thought it will assist get extra water to the Texas Gulf Coast, the place it was additionally sorely wanted.
“At the time, the politics just wasn’t going to allow it,” he stated.
The ultimate chapter
Confronted with the looming Sierra Membership lawsuit and the probability of different fights like that over the catfish farm, the Texas Legislature did lastly cross laws to raised handle the Edwards Aquifer.
In 1993, it handed the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act, which created the elected physique that now oversees pumping limits on the aquifer throughout droughts.
The authority has allotted a finite quantity of water rights to pump the aquifer, and people rights at the moment are purchased and bought within the San Antonio area as a fungible commodity. These rights have been value between $118 and $130 per acre-foot as of earlier this yr, in response to SAWS officers.
Ellis, the water lawyer who turned the Edwards Aquifer Authority’s first common supervisor, stated laws would have doubtless come even with out Pucek’s nicely. However the nicely did serve for instance of what can occur if the rule of seize is taken to an excessive.
“The rule of capture is alive and well and still the law, but … inside the [Edwards Aquifer Authority], there are limitations on what you can do so that you don’t cause harm to your neighbor and the environment,” Ellis stated.
The creation of SAWS in 1992 additionally helped San Antonio broaden its entry to water outdoors the Edwards. SAWS now faucets each main lake, river, and aquifer within the area. Because of its conservation efforts, it additionally offers much less water per individual than it did within the 1980s and 1990s.
After the settlement that paid Pucek for his water rights, he by no means received again into agriculture. He now lives within the Hill Nation “getting old, taking it easy,” he stated.
His solely remorse, he stated, just isn’t with the ability to have his catfish farm.
“I wish I would have got to do my project,” Pucek stated. “I really do. It would have been fun and great for everybody.”
One remaining chapter stays within the saga of the catfish farm: its transformation right into a park. San Antonio River Authority officers have renamed it Mann’s Crossing Park and are engaged on creating a grasp plan and securing funding, River Authority spokesperson Yviand Serbones-Hernandez stated.
Disclosure: The McCombs Basis and the San Antonio River Authority are Rivard Report enterprise members. For a full record of supporters, click on right here.