Hydrology and water quality of the Edwards Aquifer associated with Barton Springs in the Austin area, Texas

Water-Resources Investigations Report 86-4036

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Urban development over the Edwards aquifer in the Austin, Texas, area has caused concerns about the availability and quality of water in the aquifer. The study area, the Edwards aquifer that discharges to Barton Springs, includes parts of Travis and Hays Counties and extends from the city of Kyle to the Colorado River. A large part of the aquifer lies within the Austin metropolitan area one of the fastest growing areas in the Nation. As of 1985, only about 30,000 people used water from the aquifer, however, according to recent official city of Austin population projections, about 86,000 more people will be living in the study area by the year 2000, many of whom will depend upon the aquifer for water. Barton Springs, which discharges from the aquifer, serves as a supplemental source of drinking water for Austin and as a major recreational attraction.

The aquifer is a karst system composed of limestone and dolomite of Cretaceous age. The water occurs in solution channels in the Edwards and Georgetown Limestones. Yields of adjacent wells often differ by as much as four orders of magnitude. Storage within the aquifer is about 306,000 acre-feet, of which about 31,000 acre-feet is within the "transient" part of storage the change in volume occurring between high flow and the lowest known flow of Barton Springs. The average specific yield of the aquifer is 0.017.

Within the study area, the Edwards aquifer covers 155 square miles, of which about 151 square miles discharge to Barton Springs, and the remaining 4 square miles discharge to Cold and Deep Eddy Springs. The westernmost 79 percent of the aquifer is under water-table conditions, and the remaining 21 percent is under confined conditions. Three geologic sections are presented in the report, as well as maps showing the altitudes of the base and the top of the Edwards aquifer.

Recharge occurs predominantly along faults and fractures crossing six creeks in the recharge area, which covers the westernmost 90 square miles of the aquifer. Leakage probably occurs into the Edwards aquifer from the underlying upper Trinity aquifer. A small amount of subsurface recharge also occurs as "bad-water" encroachment during lovnflow periods. Monthly values for water levels, total surface-water recharge, and total discharge (springflow and pumpage) for the aquifer are available for 4 years. Water-budget analyses show that surface recharge and ground-water discharge (springflow and pumpage) are reasonably balanced, suggesting that the ground-water system is in dynamic equilibrium.

Based on 65 years of measurements, Barton Springs has a long-term mean discharge of 50 cubic feet per second and a minimum and maximum discharge of 10 and 166 cubic feet per second. As of 1982, the estimated total ground-water pumpage of about 3,800 acre-feet per year represented just over 10 percent of the average annual discharge of 36,000 acre-feet to Barton Springs. Increased pumpage associated with future ground-water development could reduce the discharge at Barton Springs and reduce ground-water availability. Substantial pumpage increases could cause increased subsurface flow into the aquifer in the form of "bad-water" encroachment, leakage from underlying aquifers, or both.

Water-quality data for 1979-83 are available for each creek that recharges the aquifer, from Barton Springs, and for 38 wells. Water quality from Barton Springs and the wells is better than the creeks providing surface recharge, which have fecal-bacteria values as high as 100,000 colonies per 100 milliliters. Significant densities of fecal bacteria have been found in water from Barton Springs. Significant concentrations of nitrate nitrogen, fecal-group bacteria, and fluoride have been identified in samples from wells. Fluoride originates in the aquifers that underlie the Edwards aquifer. Nitrate nitrogen and fecal-group bacteria originate in residential developments and cattle ranches located in the area.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrology and water quality of the Edwards Aquifer associated with Barton Springs in the Austin area, Texas
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Austin, TX
Contributing office(s):
Texas Water Science Center
vi, 117 p.
United States
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