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Groundwater Depletion: Is Texas Draining Its Savings Account?

9/29/2015 | SAMANTHA FOX

Groundwater Depletion: Is Texas Draining Its Savings Account?
Samantha Fox

Samantha Fox | Senior Product and Data Analyst | Bio

Groundwater conservation, starting with local measurement and involvement, is a crucial piece of the water puzzle in Texas. The number of water users is growing fast, and they’re all drawing out of the same shared savings account. It pays to be informed because increased awareness and engagement can lead to potential solutions. And as the saying goes: If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

Texans have always known that when water in lakes and rivers is scarce and it doesn’t rain, they could pump it out of the ground. That may not always be the case. Water experts have referred to groundwater as a savings account – something you draw on in times of need. But in many regions, the savings account is on the brink of overdraft.

Today there is groundwater. Maybe not tomorrow.
This summer, NASA’s GRACE satellite verified that aquifers all over the world are being depleted. Over half of our aquifers have not been recharging in the last decade. A recent National Geographic study shows we’re pumping so much groundwater globally it’s actually contributing to sea level rise.

One aquifer that is not recharging is along the Texas Gulf Coast. Here, unsustainable groundwater pumping is causing land subsidence, which happens when the ground caves in after excessive amounts of groundwater are removed. Subsidence compacts the soil, makes it incapable of storing water again, and can increase flooding.

Texans desperately need to use groundwater because drought cycles are a fact of life here. Even though a wet year may bring some relief, drought will always come again – most often without time for aquifers to recharge. During drought, when surface water is low or non-existent, more groundwater is pumped. This dynamic is unavoidable. Farmers have to protect crops, homeowners want green lawns, livestock needs to be watered, oil and gas wells need fracking, and our cities and towns are expected to deliver water without interruption.

Texas Water Development Board data shows that in the dry year of 2006, well drilling increased 14% over the year before, and after the next drought in 2011, drilling jumped 24% for domestic wells and a whopping 113% for irrigation.  Worse still, irrigation use doesn’t necessarily indicate agriculture – it often means urban and suburban areas are pumping water under their property for watering lawns – and their straws are drinking out of the same aquifer as a lot of other stakeholders.

Growth Texas Style
Growth is another fact of life in Texas, which is home to five out of the top ten fastest-growing cities in the country, according to Forbes. Increasing population requires more water. Even with conservation efforts, experts agree that we’re taking more water out of our aquifers than Nature is putting in.

More than 260,000 new wells have been drilled in Texas in just the past decade, and according to their permits, over half of those were for domestic use. Some of this is simply a result of population growth. More straws are drinking out of the same cup. Problems arise when new wells cause neighboring wells to slow to a trickle or dry up. As a result, new wells must be drilled and old ones deepened. If cities’ water prices are too high or municipal water restrictions are put in place because water is scarce, affluent urban homeowners in some parts of the state will just drill their own wells to keep their grass alive, potentially impacting neighbors. It can be a vicious cycle.

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The high-growth suburbs around Austin tell the story. Here, irrigation use increased sharply after the 2011 drought, accounting for roughly half of the new wells in the past few years. Since Travis County has no agriculture to speak of, these irrigation wells are being used to keep homeowners’ lawns green.

Such drilling is perfectly legal in Texas, where the rule of capture has been the law of the land since 1905. Texas is a state with a longstanding tradition of viewing access to groundwater as an inviolable property right. Anyone who owns land can pump as much groundwater as they want from beneath it with just a few exceptions. Instead of mandating centralized, statewide groundwater management, Texas has opted for local control of this shared resource through groundwater conservation districts.

Groundwater Conservation Districts
In 1951, the first groundwater conservation district (GCD) was established in Texas to gain some measure of knowledge and management over our joint water savings account. Since then, nearly 100 districts have been formed, covering 70% of the state’s land area. The Texas Water Code charges GCDs with providing for conservation, recharging, prevention of waste, and prevention of subsidence. But Texas courts continue to uphold that 1905 rule of capture law, which makes it very difficult for GCDs to control how our personal rights affect the whole. The law that gave birth to the thought, “If I can pump it from under my property it’s mine,” is a century old. Given what we know now, is it time to revisit it?

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What do GCDs do?
Fifty-five percent of all new wells drilled are domestic, and domestic wells that water lawns are exempt from GCD fees and permit requirements. That means over half of new wells drilled are outside of GCD control. Interestingly, wells are drilled at basically the same rate inside GCDs and out. There is a lot of local variance.

If GCDs don’t really limit well drilling, then what do they do? A Hays County dispute this summer sparked legislation that highlights their role. The Houston-based company Electro Purification drilled several wells in already-parched Hays County, intending to pump up to 5 million gallons of water per day and transport and sell it to some of Austin’s fastest-growing Hill Country suburbs. This was perfectly legal at the time.

After considerable public backlash, Texas HB 3405 passed, expanding a neighboring GCD’s authority over the area where the wells are. That GCD will now decide the terms and it can limit production and curtail withdrawals.

The sponsor of the bill, State Representative Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs inferred that pumping water from under a neighboring property was like stealing. Isaac said, “You don’t go on top of people’s property and steal…I feel it is the same way with…[going] under.” According to Texas law, it is not in fact stealing. It was legal according to the rule of capture. Essentially, this is the problem.

Is it time we change Texas water policy?
To date, there has not been the political will at the state level to revise the rule of capture. GCDs attempt to discourage the ‘buy-and-dry’ approach to groundwater development whereby large, funded water users and speculators pump groundwater to export and sell, but widespread regulation of groundwater is minimal at best. GCD efforts are hamstrung by lawsuits and the general Texas way of thinking: “You’ll take my water when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Private ownership is prized by all parties in Texas, even when it leads to drinking each other dry. Does the use of the rule of capture among adjoining landowners equate to theft? That doesn’t seem to be a question anyone’s willing to answer. Instead, much of the debate focuses on what GCD actions constitute a regulatory taking. GCDs are between a rock and a hard place: preventing harmful taking of groundwater while attempting not to tell Texans what they can and can’t do with what has historically been legally within their right.

What happens when your neighbor has his straw in your neighborhood cup and is taking more than his fair share of water for uses you don’t agree with? What happens when a company buys up land or groundwater rights near yours with the intention of pumping vast amounts of water from your shared aquifer? What do you do when a competitor for water takes advantage of holes in current water law, to your disadvantage? There should be something a Texan can do about these things.

What is a landowner to do? Start by getting educated.
Probably the best thing you can do about the groundwater problem is to get educated. First, find out about your local groundwater situation. Is your property covered by a GCD, what are its rules, and how does that impact your property and its water?

Next, learn about all the straws drinking your shared groundwater. What’s the trend of development in your area?

Where do you start?
The old, traditional method of finding this information was tedious and time consuming. Physical visits to county courthouses and state offices were usually necessary. Every office and district has its data in a different format and allows varying access to it. Often an expert had to be paid to help wade through the data and red tape. Now there is a new tool – one source – where a landowner or other stakeholder can get all this information in one place, in a matter of minutes. A map-based data access portal called Water Sage makes it easy for anyone who has access to the Internet and a computer to efficiently search and view water rights information and land ownership across the western United States. Texas data is detailed, thorough, and regularly updated. It’s all public record, so you can search for any data – not just your own. Water-related research that used to take days and technical skills is now fast and simple. You can research any area of the state for land, water, and the rules that govern them.

Water Sage is the fastest, most thorough, and least expensive approach for any landowner or interested party to access all the data they may need or want.

Water Sage Texas
Screen shot: A view of some irrigation wells in non-GCD areas outside Austin.

Then what?
Groundwater conservation, starting with local measurement and involvement, is a crucial piece of the water puzzle in Texas. The number of water users is growing fast, and we’re all drawing out of the same shared savings account. A recent segment on 60 Minutes on the global groundwater crisis said, “The wars of the 21st century may well be fought over water.” It pays to be informed because increased awareness and engagement can lead to potential solutions. And as the saying goes: If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

Should we opt for statewide groundwater guidelines, recycle wastewater, forgo green lawns and opt for native plants or xeriscaping, desalinate, manually assist the recharging of aquifers, or come up with other solutions? There are many approaches that could all lead to better protection of our crucial water resources. Get data and insight from Water Sage, become informed, let your elected officials know groundwater is on your radar, and become part of the solution. If you don’t like what you find out, tell your GCD or your elected officials. Tell your neighbors and friends. Together Texans can address their impending overdraft.