25 May 2009

Ground Water in Texas

I used to tell audiences that Texas and California has two things in common:
  1. Opposition to gay marriage, and
  2. Unregulated ground water.
Imagine my shock and upset (at losing my joke) when I heard that Texas was "doing something" about its ground water. Here's the short version:
  • The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB = California's DWR and SWRCB) monitors groundwater with its own wells.
  • Texas has Groundwater Management Areas (GMAs) for the whole state.
  • These GMAs are required to file a report "defining future conditions" for their groundwater, i.e., their aspirations -- NOT projections -- for future levels.
So, problem solved, right?


Texas still suffers from several familiar problems:
Addressing the water crisis in western Hays County falls to a tiny governmental entity with one full-time employee, five volunteer elected directors, a volunteer geologist, and an $150,000 annual budget. The Hays-Trinity Groundwater Conservation District is one of 96 districts in Texas covering roughly half the state's landmass. The districts are supposed to be all that stands in the way of the rule of capture, the unique Texas law that essentially says you can pump as much water as you like, your neighbor's well or stream be damned. If you can pump it, it's yours.

To combat the inevitable depredations of the rule of capture, most of Texas' groundwater districts can collect taxes, meter wells, set minimum distances between wells, issue permits, and impose pumping limits. The Hays district has few of these powers...

Green's 1999 legislation exempted agricultural and single-family residential wells in the district from regulation -- 98 percent of an estimated 6,500 wells. The district has some authority over water utilities, which provide about half the water in the district. But developers are taking advantage of the district's generous exceptions by building small, dense developments that require homeowners to provision their own individual, exempt wells [The same problem that Arizona has]. Another perverse provision of the legislation provides that funding for the district primarily comes from a $300 fee on new wells [i.e., it -- like Vegas -- makes money from licensing new wells/development].
Did Green's 2002 defeat at the hands of Patrick Rose change things? Nope -- Rose is a real estate developer.

Oh, and the government -- like the government of California -- continues to suffer the delusion that ground and surface waters are NOT connected. For more on that batshit crazy policy (and underfunding of GMAs), read this EDF briefing [pdf].

Bottom Line: Texans -- like many in the western US -- are destroying their present and future by mining their groundwater. Their land will be worth less, their environment will be damaged, and their children sad -- unless they restrict ground water withdrawals to sustainable yields.


Noah Hall said...

The fundamental problem with Texas groundwater law, from both an environmental and economic perspective, is that it does not protect property interests in groundwater. Under Texas law, if you can pump the groundwater, you can use it - the rights of other investors and property owners are not protected. This creates a huge disincentive to investing in water dependent infrastructure and businesses and protecting groundwater-dependent natural resources.

Mel said...

This is true for most of the groundwater in Texas. There is the interesting exception, however, of the Edwards Aquifer. Following a suit brought by the Sierra Club claiming that overpumping was threatening endangered species, Texas created the Edwards Aquifer Authority, placed a cap on total pumping, and created a water market for pumping rights.

Aquadoc said...

Great post, David.

You touched on a big part of the groundwater problem in the Western states - the so-called exempt wells. The "developer issue" you mentioned in AZ occurs elsewhere as well. We had it in NM, too - a developer would put in a subdivision and then require that each lot have a domestic well.

When I lived in Albuquerque, I actually had people tell me they were not part of the water problem because they had their own well. The problem was there were thousands of wells like that.

In OR the state allows up to 15,000 gpd for an exempt (domestic) well - almost 17 AF/year! Ridiculous! An effort to lower that to 5,000 gpd was met with resistance and defeated.

Interesting note on the TX rule of capture: I've heard T. Boone Pickens actually say that the reason he wants to pump and sell 200,000 AF/year from his Roberts County ranch is that if he didn't do it, someone else would and steal his water!

Anonymous said...

You make some other points in this post, but I have a slightly belated question. You point out that land values will fall as a result of groundwater mining. Why doesn't the loss in expected future land value constitute an adequate implicit price for groundwater extraction? How do we know that too much is being extracted?

David Zetland said...

@anon -- great question. I think that this problem (when it exists) exemplifies market failure. It can happen for a number of reasons: (1) inadequate data, (2) hope that someone else will stop first, (3) hope that an outside party will bring additional water (something that's been promised over and over in CA, i.e., the CRA/CVP/SWP will replenish ground water), (4) high discount rates, or (5) an explicit decision to mine, e.g., as with the Ogallala.

Anonymous said...

Thanks David. That makes a lot of sense.

But just to follow up, do we know empirically which of those are in fact major drivers of over-use? (The implicit government guarantee seems like the biggest potential problem to me.)

David Zetland said...

Nope. No idea. Depends on local circumstances...

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