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No watering your lawn ... except for those who can afford their own private well

Workers prepare to dig a water well in the backyard of Brandi and Brian Gruis's house in Austin, Texas.

Driving to Brandi Gruis’s place in Austin, Texas, you pass block after block of little houses on brown, postage-stamp lawns. Then there’s her cul-de-sac: Big houses, acre-plus lots, and greener grass.

Brandi and her husband, Brian, moved here from Sioux City, South Dakota, last spring.  "We realized shortly after we moved in," she recalls, "we were one of the few in the neighborhood not to have a well."

Like much of Texas, the city of Austin has had drought for the last few years. In response, the city has imposed restrictions on watering lawns -- and utility rates that make watering expensive. But homeowners in greener -- and wealthier -- parts of town have found a work-around: Digging their own wells.

The practice is controversial. Local news outlets have run stories on wealthy homeowners -- including the state’s attorney general -- who seem, some say, to be thumbing their noses at the need for water conservation and shared sacrifice.

In Sioux City, Brandi and Brian Gruis let their grass go brown to conserve water. But in this cul-de-sac, letting the front yard go brown would be like walking the dog in your underwear. Brandi Gruis jokes -- or half-jokes -- about getting kicked out.

"I guess there’s still peer pressure when you’re adults, too," she says.

So on this December afternoon, there’s an 800-horsepower drilling rig in her backyard.

For anyone committed to watering a lawn this size in Austin, a $15,000 well pays itself back pretty quickly.

"Our watering bill would probably run about $700 to $1,000 a month if we watered just to keep the grass barely alive," says Ms. Gruis.

The drilling rig’s owner, Jim Blair, of Bee Cave Drilling, arrives just before work starts in earnest.

"It’ll get loud, all of a sudden," he promises.

Blair says he’s been digging 200 wells a year or more, and other drilling companies are getting work, too.

"People are always wanting to use their own water," he says. "They own the groundwater here in Texas."

Texas law supports the “right of capture,” meaning that property owners are entitled to take any water under their land -- even if it means pumping a neighbor’s well dry.

However, a mechanism exists for regulating groundwater that could curtail well-digging. Blair expects local authorities to try using it.

"There’s a big fight coming," he says. "That’s for sure."

Meanwhile, he says the prospect of that fight is good for business. It’s a reason for customers to dig wells now, while they can.

Also good for his business: The public shaming of homeowners who use too much city water on their lawns. For years, a local paper published an annual list of the city’s biggest water users.

"I look forward to that list coming out every year," says Blair with a laugh. "I always get the phone calls the next day."

 

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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