Texans Look Beneath the Surface for Water
By Neena Satija November 19, 2013
This is the first in a five-part series examining Texans' thirst for underground water.
From farmers to the oil and gas industry to gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Greg Abbott, Texans are looking beneath their land to make up the state’s growing water deficit.
Unlike surface water, which is owned and allocated by the state, groundwater belongs to the landowner and is regulated by nearly 100 different conservation districts across Texas, all of which set their own rules. The recent drought, along with major court decisions, has led to what some say is the most uncertain time in state history for those who depend on and manage groundwater in Texas.
Property rights advocates have lauded recent court rulings affirming Texans’ ownership of water under their land after some water districts attempted to limit pumping in hopes of conserving precious remaining groundwater. But managers of water conservation districts fear that if courts continue to restrict their ability to regulate groundwater use, there may soon be no water left to pump.
“You just kind of have to wonder what’s behind the next door,” said Jason Coleman, general manager of the Lubbock-based High Plains Underground Water District, the oldest groundwater regulatory agency in the state.
Coleman’s job is fraught with political tension. He manages the water district that lies over the Ogallala Aquifer. It's one of the largest groundwater resources in the country, stretching across eight Western states, supplying drinking water for millions and supporting an estimated 25 percent of the nation's agricultural production.
In the past 60 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the aquifer has been pumped so heavily that water that has built up over 10,000 years is quickly depleting. Unlike most aquifers in Texas, the Ogallala gets very little water from “recharge” — the process by which rain percolates through the ground and replaces lost groundwater.
Yet when the High Plains district suggested setting pumping limits on the Ogallala for the first time in 2011, the board faced a public outcry. Farmers attended meetings in droves, calling district leaders “socialists” and “tyrannical.” Under the new rules, pumping would be limited to about 570,000 gallons per acre per year in 2012, and restrictions would get more severe in the following years. The district’s board quickly backed down, saying no one would be penalized for violating the rules for at least a year.Read More