Texas towns run dry as private water trumps public need

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AUSTIN, Texas - Let's say you live in a small Texas town that, because of a years-long drought, is running out of drinking water.

Because of the emergency, your town has banned homeowners from watering lawns, and begun trucking in tanks of water to keep the town from going completely dry.

Down the road, however, a landowner has leased his groundwater rights to a petro/gas drilling firm that routinely uses many thousands of gallons of water to extract oil and gas from the ground. Where does his water come from?

The same place as yours, essentially.

Underground aquifers are the source of much of the water that has allowed cities, farmers, and ranchers to prosper in this arid region. Texas law allows landowners to pump as much water from their wells as they choose - with few restrictions - even if part of that water is siphoned from other landowners or neighboring towns. The "rule of capture" treats groundwater as private property, even though scientists have long recognized the deep interchange between ground (private) and surface (state) waters.

Water rights expert Robert Glennon, author of "Unquenchable, America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It," says on his website: "What we must recognize is that water is a finite and valuable resource ... We should create a lifeline supply that recognizes a human right to water for basic needs. If the richest country in the history of the world cannot make that commitment to its people, then we are a sorry lot."

Glennon advocates that communities escalate rates charged to major water users, in order to encourage conservation.

Texas laws and customs, however, have reflexively backed corporate and landowner rights, regardless of their impact on the common good. In recent years, that one-note boosterism has led to critical water shortages in the most drought-stricken areas of the state.

In Barnhart, Texas, for instance, "the me-first we-never" motto of water rights has bled the town dry for days at a time. Nearby hydraulic fracking gulped down a veritable flood of well water, this during a brutal drought.

The State of Texas is building a pipeline to route water to the town's residents, which is yet another way that Texas taxpayers are funding Big Oil and Big Gas.

A statement released by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality revealed that approximately 30 towns could run out of water before 2014. Much of the state is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions.

"It's ridiculous," said Gloria (who requested her real name not be used). "I have friends whose wells have run dry, and it's because their neighbor contracted his well water to the gas companies. He takes the money - hell, he hasn't farmed his land in years - he takes the money and lives over in Lubbock. It's not his problem, but it's our whole way of life drying up because of people like him."

Gloria and her husband live in a rural county on the Texas Panhandle hard hit by the ongoing drought. Breakthroughs in extracting oil from formations previously thought played-out has led to an oil boom that has spread from the Midland-Odessa Petroplex into the Panhandle. This, combined with natural gas explorations, has led to a huge demand on water.

Gloria's family has farmed their land for generations and observed water conservation practices well before the current drought. "We've been good about using drip irrigation, basically doing the right thing year after year," she said, adding "It's expensive, but it's kept the well water flowing, or at least it did until recently."

While the Texas South Plains struggles with long-term issues of drought, corporate vs. common water needs, and dwindling aquifers, the story downstate features another player: coal-powered electrical plants, which are water hogs.

The larger a city, the more its power needs grow to a level far beyond the ability of surface water (rivers and lakes) to provide, which again pushes the burden onto groundwater.

The problem, however, is that groundwater isn't always near potential customers. Part of the cost of the pipelines and water treatment plants then gets passed on to consumers in the form of taxes and increased water rates.

Because the State of Texas has divided its territory into a slurry of water conservation districts and public entities, the battle for who controls the H20 is one in which the average citizen has little direct say.

Water district boards are empowered to sell water to companies representing water-hungry industries and cities. These competing interests have been such a source of contention that this year the Texas Legislature, long dominated by climate-change-deniers, finally passed the State Water Plan.

Texas voters will decide in November whether to support the plan, which includes funding for hundreds of water supply projects.

In the meantime, Gloria continues to see water trucks drive by her farm en route to various petro/gas drilling projects.

"Frankly, I don't see how any plan by the state will really fix the problem. We're a dry state and getting dryer by the day," she said. "The people down in Austin have to decide whether they care more about people than oil rigs, and I don't see that happening anytime soon."

Texans concerned about water policy have a few options. One is to find out who is on their local water district board.

The Texas Water Development Board website includes information to help residents find what groundwater district they live in, as well as other information including contact information for each district.

The Environmental Defense Fund is active on the state and national level on a variety of water-related issues.

Texas Living Waters Project is a joint effort by the National Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club.

It should be noted that although Texas historically has been a hostile climate for the labor movement, this hasn't stopped the AFL-CIO from advocating a water blueprint to benefit not only Texans but the rest of the nation.

The AFL-CIO's Six-Point Jobs Plan includes calls to reauthorize and expand the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The plan also cites the need to renew the Building Star program to create jobs through the installation of energy- (and water-) saving technology.

Corrected 8/29/13: The Texas Water Development Board is the state agency that works with groundwater management districts. An earlier version incorrectly identified the agency.

Photo: A central Texas rancher put this sign on his fence to encourage everyone driving by on TX 290 to do whatever they can to bring the parched land some relief. Jack Newton CC 2.0

 

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  • Thanks, Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board staff, for calling our attention to the fact that the Texas Water Development Board, not your agency, is responsible for local groundwater districts. We have corrected the information and links.

    We're gratified that the important issues raised in the article have drawn attention.

    Posted by Editor, 08/29/2013 4:31pm (11 months ago)

  • wonderful article. I notice that the Dallas Morning News is picking up on this scandal. Kelly beat them to it!
    --jim lane in Dallas

    Posted by jim lane, 08/29/2013 12:36pm (11 months ago)

  • The article references the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board's website and a locator map for "districts." Soil and water conservation districts do not regulate water in any way in Texas. You need to provide a link to the Texas Water Development Board in your article. That agency coordinates with groundwater districts and irrigation districts that do perform that function. The reference to the Soil and Water Conservation Board should be removed.

    Thanks,
    Staff of the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board

    Posted by TSSWCB Staff, 08/29/2013 10:01am (11 months ago)

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