California’s Water Crisis: Could Texas Be Next?

9/23/2016 | SAMANTHA FOX

California’s Water Crisis: Could Texas Be Next?
Samantha Fox

Samantha Fox | Senior Product and Data Analyst | Bio

Did you know that during a drought, the number one driver of well drilling in Texas is irrigation? But it’s not what you may be thinking.  Instead of growing crops, it’s frequently used to keep lawns green while fields go brown.

Did you know that there are still places in Texas where anybody can buy up land and pump as much groundwater as they want from under it, even if it depletes the aquifer or dries up the wells around it?

These are problems that plague California, too.

Texas is facing many of the same challenges as California: drought, population growth, and groundwater depletion. California is in a state of crisis. And there is one aspect of California’s water administration that Texas shares: a patchwork approach to management. How can Texas avoid the same fate?

At the same time that its surface water supplies dried up in this recent drought, California’s alarming groundwater depletion problem captured mainstream attention. California has scrambled to cope. In 2014, the state legislated stricter reporting of water use, passed a Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and prevented some people from diverting water for the first time in 38 years. People have signed up in droves to remove their turf lawns for rebates, and drought shaming has been added to the cultural lexicon, all while farmers have improved their irrigation practices, fallowed fields, sometimes with devastating impacts on their businesses. Despite recent efforts, California is still widely perceived to have the worst track record of any Western state in managing its water. Part of the reason for that is lax oversight – in 2014 it became the last state in the West to regulate groundwater.

Texan rice farmers will remember a firestorm of public scorn similar to the one California almond farmers are facing now.  Groundwater has historically been free for the (landowner’s) taking in both Texas and California. Since groundwater has been viewed as a private property right, often without pre-determined limits, when surface water became scarce for California almond farmers, they simply pumped more. Texans have done the same when their surface supply is reduced by drought. Well drilling for irrigation doubled in 2012 and stayed high until rains came again in 2015.

Drought Levels

California’s recent drought was a headliner because of its rarity, length, and dramatic threats to major agribusiness and drinking water supply. By contrast, drought is a recurrent danger in Texas, mitigated every few years by rainfall relief, during which water stakeholders’ memories seem to be unfortunately short. Important discussions once necessitated by impending crisis cease until the next round of dry months. Even after recurrent drought over the last 15 years, the state is currently drought-free once more. That gives Texans the precious opportunity to take a breath and re-evaluate.

Hydroillogical-cycleThe downside of relief is that too often, we see rainfall and lapse into the “hydroillogical cycle” – wherein we forget the dire nature of what just happened, preferring to avoid the tough decisions required to abate crisis in the future once the immediate danger is past. Rainfall is not a magic bullet; heavy surface flooding does not translate to aquifer recharge in a meaningful way in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps the bigger advantage Texas has is information. It’s mighty hard to fix a problem you can’t see, measure, or understand the nuances of. Texas had the foresight to assemble statewide databases of wells and surface water rights and make them available to the public, like most Western states. A comparable groundwater database simply does not exist in California. California still kept its well logs secret until late 2015, and comprehensive statewide oversight of groundwater won’t begin until June 2017.

The similarity between California and Texas, and therefore a warning sign to the latter, is that both states suffer from a patchwork system of managing groundwater withdrawal. Where it’s done, it’s done locally (which can be really valuable as water management can reflect local values and issues), but in some places there’s no management at all. There is the lingering fear that limitations on groundwater pumping constitute the regulatory taking of a private property right. Recent case law confirms that Texans still have trouble reconciling the unlimited right to pump with cooperative management, rendering attempts at local control fairly impotent. But an extremely dire water situation like California’s raises the question: what would happen to Texans if their next drought were to persist like California’s has? Would groundwater pumping be allowed to deplete aquifers? How many wells would go dry, how many farms would go under, before aquifers were better protected? Would the extreme necessity for management rules in this scenario result in equally extreme restrictions on Texans? Other Western states like Colorado have regulatory systems for groundwater that protect the rights of historical water users and land owners, while managing the shared resource for the whole.

Those who care about Texas water can take advantage of the state’s copious information on where water’s being pulled out of the ground and at what rate. Texas also has the benefit of locally run groundwater conservation districts that can manage aquifers so that water is still around to cushion the blow of future droughts; if you have one, get involved. Even though Texas is starting to embrace some restraint as necessary to avoid a tragedy of the commons, it might be wise to take cues from states like Colorado, Nebraska, and Idaho that manage their groundwater much more proactively.

Success in keeping the shared water of Texas is going to take more than shortening your shower, turning off the tap while brushing your teeth, or xeriscaping with rock and bark. It’s going to take a sea change of public opinion and good old fashioned Texas action. That process starts with spreading information – and looking below the surface of what we think we know.