Texas Groundwater Regulatory Entities' Power is Needed and Acceptable

By Shannon C. Harris
October 22, 2014

Recent reports have argued that local regulatory entities exercise too much power when it comes to groundwater in Texas. This is incorrect. Water is not just another commodity. It is vital to life and it needs to be closely watched and regulated.

It is true there is substantial water available in some aquifers but what is totally ignored is how much annually can be withdrawn in relation to projected yearly rainfall recharge that the aquifers need to be sustained. Groundwater Conservation Districts were created to make those determinations based on good science. Different districts will operate differently because no two aquifers were created equal. Water in Texas is diverse and site specific. That is fact, not politics.

For instance, the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District in central Texas has placed five year limits on water permits. This is both just and reasonable. The Lost Pines District is in an area of the state that is experiencing drought, just like the rest of the state. The district has prudently determined, based on data designed to keep the aquifer at sustainable levels, that this limit is justified. Developers and water marketers should take a common-sense lesson from this restriction and remember that in some parts of Texas, growth may be constrained because nature limits water resources.

Groundwater supplies in Texas are not vast statewide, and there is solid data on some key aquifers being depleted. Texans reliant on the Ogallala aquifer in the panhandle portion of the state know this quite well. One of the State Regional Planning Groups in this area has the most rigorous conservation plan in the state, designed to decrease dependency on the aquifer due to depletion. The aquifer drawdown in the panhandle in 2013 ranged from half a foot to nearly two feet, which are large amounts, while annual recharge for this aquifer is known to be only half an inch or less in some areas.

Groundwater levels elsewhere in Texas are also suffering drawdown that, while perhaps related to the drought, are solid evidence about the need to conserve when allowing long-term contracts for water that may or may not be available. The Edwards Aquifer in San Antonio is in stage four rationing, one level short of severe. Lakes Travis and Buchanan, at 34 percent full, have not recovered despite near normal rainfall this year and it is experiencing historically low inflows from the rivers and streams. It is important to note that besides runoff, other sources that help our rivers and streams to flow and fill our reservoirs are groundwater springs.

Groundwater Conservation Districts are not-for-profit entities that have the interests of the general public in mind, not the interests of those intending to turn a profit on water, otherwise known as “water marketers,” for developing more of our ever-decreasing open landscapes. Water marketers with deep pockets are both greedy and irresponsible when they sue an individual district for just trying to do its job.

If water marketers really want their businesses to continue they should tweak their plans to focus on innovative thinking about other water strategies. Two examples are low-impact development incorporating green infrastructure and ecosystem services which could help mitigate most of the need for landscape water. Subdivision-wide rainwater harvesting projects could provide much of the needed water in some areas.

Shannon C. Harris is a Master of Science degree candidate in the Sustainable Design Program in the School of Architecture at The University of Texas at Austin. She is studying the implications of the 20% conservation mandate in the SWIFT/SWIRFT fund.