“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.
As the old saying goes; water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Such was the situation in Toledo last August when a toxic algae bloom disrupted the city’s water supply over the course of 2-3 days, forcing 500,000 people to go without access to potable water. Though the algal bloom proved to be only a temporary disruption for the city, it clearly demonstrated to communities throughout the country just how vulnerable their drinking water can be.
Of course, the vulnerabilities present in other cities are not as sudden and tangible as a slimy green trail of algae. Most cities face hidden threats to their water supply such as leaky pipes and non-point source pollution from storm water and agricultural runoff. Raising awareness of these potential sources of contamination is a task that many communities struggle with in the face of public apathy and obstinate local governments. For that reason, it is common to find non-profit groups filling the void between public awareness and government action.
One such group, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance (GEAA), works to protect the largest aquifer in Central Texas, the eponymous Edwards Aquifer. The aquifer is the sole source of municipal drinking water in the city of San Antonio, providing water for the city’s population of 1.7 million. The waters of the Edwards are also drawn upon by numerous cities that lie between San Antonio and Austin, where an additional 50,000 people rely on the aquifer for drinking water. But the aquifer doesn’t just support 2 million Texans, it also provides the lifeblood for numerous habitats throughout Central Texas that would otherwise not exist without the replenishing waters of the Edwards.
In order to protect this vital resource for Texans and its wildlife, the GEAA united a number of groups and individuals who previously worked separately to protect lands and springs connected to the Edwards. This unified assembly of environmental groups took shape in 2002 with the adoption of the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan. The plan outlined the overarching priorities of the new organization, with one of the biggest priorities being enhanced land use restrictions to help stem sources of groundwater contamination.
The Edwards Aquifer is particularly vulnerable due to the speed with which its groundwater flows through the region. In normal aquifers, water flows at a rate of a few feet per year. But due to the prevalence of limestone (a rock that erodes very quickly in the presence of water) the water of the Edwards is able to flow at a rate of several thousand feet per day. This makes it very easy for surface contaminants to leech into the aquifer and quickly spread to other parts of the region.
One of the most prevalent sources of contamination comes from surface runoff, a byproduct of developing on lands that were previously natural areas. Soil acts as a natural filter for rainwater by slowly removing potential contaminants as it trickles down into the watershed. But if the land is covered over with concrete and asphalt the rainwater will instead pick up surface contaminants like oils and pesticides and carry them into storm drains, where they will eventually make their way into springs and rivers.
Combating land development is not an easy task, especially in Central Texas where cities like San Antonio and Austin are continuously growing in population. For this reason, the GEAA advocates for severely reducing land development throughout the region, especially in areas that lie atop vulnerable portions of the Edwards Aquifer. It further advocates for the use of conservation easements and land purchases to ensure that key areas are protected from development.
Unfortunately, the Edwards is also under threat from commercial interests pumping vast sums of water from their own private wells in order to sell it to other parts of the state. This has resulted in diminishing spring flows throughout San Antonio and has prompted the GEAA to focus on improving the efficiency of appliances to reduce overall demand for surface and groundwater. They have also put renewed emphasis on rainwater harvesting for residential developments, a process that is both cheaper and friendlier to the environment compared to conventional water systems.
As the demand for water increases, the role of the GEAA and its member organizations will only grow as more and more citizens become aware of the threats that the Edwards Aquifer faces. And the same applies to the hundreds of other organizations around the country that campaign for cleaner, safer water for their populations and local wildlife. If you are a resident of Central Texas, show your support for the GEAA by donating or calling your local representative to affirm your support for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance.