Breaking New Ground with a New Groundwater District
By Senator Craig Estes
Last November, voters in Hood, Parker, Wise, and Montague counties overwhelmingly approved the creation of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. This district was created to help insure the long-term availability of groundwater resources in these four counties that are experiencing dramatic growth in population and economic activity.
Faced with the prospect of being included in a 13-county groundwater district anchored around Tarrant County, local leaders were clear in their desire to see a smaller district to help maintain local control and preserve local groundwater resources without competing with the demands of a large metropolitan area.
The bill we passed through the Legislature was landmark in extending for the first time water use regulations on the oil and gas industry. For the first time ever in Texas history, a groundwater conservation district has the express authority to regulate water used for oil and gas activities. The oil and gas companies are required to pay water use fees like other users, install meters on water wells, report their usage to the district, and comply with well spacing and other regulations adopted at the local level.
Also unique to the legislation was a provision removing all eminent domain authority from the district to ensure that it won't overstep its bounds with respect to private property.
Additionally, rather than fund the operations of the groundwater conservation district with another layer of locally assessed property taxes, this district is funded through the assessment of fees on large water users. Since the primary purpose of the groundwater conservation district is to preserve water resources, it then makes sense to focus efforts on large scale water users. This would include municipal water wells that draw up large amounts of water to be distributed to individual residential and commercial users.
One of the central questions that is now being debated within the new district is whether the bill intended to require municipal water systems, and thus municipal water users, to pay water use fees. Let's be clear that the bill setting up the UTGCD did not alter the existing law regarding municipal water systems. Therefore, the bill creating the groundwater conservation district did not add municipal systems, but rather it treats municipalities as they are generally treated under the existing state water law.
Some have suggested that municipal water systems should be exempt from the regulations of the groundwater conservation district, specifically the assessment of fees. However, considering the growth in residential and commercial municipal water users, it would not be practical to exempt municipal water systems. Additionally, there is a fundamental question of fairness in the application of fees on residential and commercial users. Residents and small business owners not purchasing water from a municipality, but rather from a Special Utility District or a water supply corporation, should not be asked to carry the burden for preserving the long-term groundwater resources.
If this new groundwater district is going to be successful in protecting the local groundwater resources, it must be able to manage the location, drilling, and production of all large wells regardless of how the water is used.
Furthermore, this groundwater district may very well become the standard by which all new groundwater districts are measured with new water regulations on large industrial users, the removal of eminent domain authority, and funding that does not add another layer of property taxes on Texas property owners.
Craig Estes is the State Senator for District 30, which include the counties of Parker, Wise, and Montague within the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, and serves as Vice-Chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.