Op-Ed from the office of Senator Carlos Uresti

August 20, 2010
Mark Langford at 210-932-2568

Groundwater districts, Mother Nature need a helping hand

By Sen. Carlos Uresti

Mother Nature has blessed Texas in many ways -- with a warm climate, an abundance of natural resources and the beauty of mountains, high deserts, forest thickets, long stretches of sandy beach and rolling plains.

But, to be honest, she has been a little stingy with the water.

That is particularly true in West Texas, where the old saying, "Whiskey is for drinkin' and water is for fightin,'" will likely play out in the next session of the Legislature. Water is essential not only for growth, but to sustain our cities, farms, ranches and industry. And as the state grows, there is less and less of it to go around.

Cities across Texas are shopping for water, and because the water in most rivers and lakes is spoken for, they are looking to rural areas where groundwater is still available.

The only protection that rural residents have when cities or speculators come calling is their local groundwater district. There are 98 such districts in Texas, regulating well drilling, spacing and production, and the export of water outside their boundaries.

Under the law, these districts cannot discriminate against those who want to export groundwater elsewhere, but they can develop rules and regulations to govern the process and ensure that exportation generates extra revenue for the district. And if it's shown that continued production would adversely affect the aquifer, these districts can cut production back.

Groundwater districts generally focus on protecting historic use -- the rights of those pumpers who have a verifiable history of using an aquifer's water. Once those rights are satisfied, and if scientific studies then show that more water is available, the district can accept applications for new uses on a first-come, first-serve basis.

But some problems with this process have emerged that the Legislature may eventually have to tackle.

For example, in some districts speculators have obtained permits to produce and export water for which they do not yet have customers. Some districts allow such permit holders to retain their rights even if the water isn't used, taking available water out of circulation.

And some districts, in an effort to save their water for the future, appear to have underestimated the amount available on a sustainable basis, taking that water out of circulation as well. Other districts can be created for the sole purpose of exporting water outside of their boundaries.

The last session of the Legislature saw the attempted creation of the West Texas Water Supply District. Its proposed far-reaching powers, including eminent domain, were designed to transport Pecos County groundwater across vast reaches of arid West Texas.

I fought the creation of this district and will do so again in the 82nd Legislature. That's just one water-related issue that must be addressed. Uvalde County is also facing the threat of water exportation, Kinney County's district has been largely dysfunctional, and groundwater districts in Presidio and Brewster counties need to have broader authority and support.

Water is a resource that everyone needs to live and prosper. Our state cannot move forward if local governmental agencies impose unreasonable controls on the movement and usage of this precious resource, which Mother Nature mostly overlooked for West Texas.

Come January, the Legislature will have to give both of them a helping hand.