Groundwater belongs to us… and our children

By Margaret Cook and Natalie Ballew
October 23, 2014

According to state law, you own the water beneath your property. Yet all too often, your neighbor’s water use affects whether you have water left in your well tomorrow. Thankfully, local regulatory entities—groundwater conservation districts, or GCDs—exist to make sure there is enough water left underground for your, your children’s, and even your neighbor's future use. The members of your GCD board are members of your community. They decide on desired future conditions for your aquifer based on a community effort and put safeguards on water withdrawals with everyone’s future in mind.

People once thought the Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle would be a never-ending water resource. Today, the water levels in the aquifer have sharply decreased since development over the past 60 years. The US Geological Survey reports depletion at 150 to 400 feet across the Texas portion of the aquifer. Landowners in the Panhandle generally welcome the limits GCDs put on pumping because they are at least able to get their allotted amount of water rather than paying the high cost of importing more water or drilling a deeper well when their well runs dry. Some GCDs use export fees to limit groundwater ranching—buying land in an area with the intent of shipping the water beneath it to the highest bidder. These export fees create an incentive to keep water from your district in your district, recharging your aquifer.

A dry well isn’t the only worry facing Texas groundwater users. In the Houston area, excessive groundwater pumping—or mining the aquifer—caused some parts of the area to sink up to 10 feet between 1906 and 2000. Legislatively mandated Subsidence Districts, akin to GCDs, keep would-be groundwater users from causing the area to sink further. In the San Antonio area, groundwater mining slowed flow out of the Edwards Aquifer into local springs, causing issues with area endangered species. Under threat of federal intervention, the legislature established a GCD, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, to protect the groundwater in the area and maintain spring flows. In short, we don’t know what mining our aquifers will do. A conservative approach to water allocation protects users from these types of future concerns.

Consider the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District. Lost Pines is conservative with water pumping allocations, limiting permits to a five-year period. This restriction is unattractive to water marketers who want to profit off of cultivating more uses of the water, uses that may or may not be to the benefit of the local community. But for some water marketers, like Aqua Water, who want to provide a reliable water supply at affordable rates to the local community, the system already functions well. A water market without limitations on maximum water withdrawals encourages wasteful use. A market that limits water sales to that which is best for the environment and the local community promotes water conservation as well as profit. These types of stipulations on property rights do not inhibit water markets; rather they create a system that promotes water marketing at a reasonable rate while encouraging water to stay close to home.

Texas is blessed with diverse groundwater resources. While some aquifers in Texas have substantial water, we shouldn’t view water as a commodity resource to exploit for profit. Instead, we should view water as what it is: our life source, the one natural resource without which we cannot live. Markets can be effective in allocating resources to their best use, but the best use for Texas water shouldn’t be unregulated withdrawals and depletion of aquifers. Ensuring that water can be developed in a sensible and efficient manner will indeed require some changes to the current system. Establishing necessary, clear limits on groundwater withdrawals can provide the property rights required for an efficient water market while also protecting water resources for future generations. We owe it to our children.

Margaret Cook is pursuing dual Masters degrees in Public Affairs and Environmental & Water Resources Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Part of her research on the energy-water nexus in Texas includes efficient reallocation of water through water markets.

Natalie Ballew is pursuing dual Masters degrees in Public Affairs and Energy and Earth Resources at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on communicating scientific and socio-economic groundwater issues to decision-makers and the general public.