Water: Local control, state control or both: What is the right answer?

By Billy Howe
TFB State Legislative Director

Every session of the Texas Legislature, bills are filed to provide more state oversight of groundwater management. This session is no exception.

Water marketers and water supply entities come to Austin and tell their stories of how they have been mistreated by local districts, or how the policies of the district don’t recognize the realities of building multi-million dollar water projects.

To remedy these problems with the local districts, legislation has been filed to require permit renewals every five years, provide uniform permitting and rulemaking for brackish groundwater desalination projects, provide for uniform groundwater usage data collection, and grant the Texas Water Development Board authority to determine if the local district’s management plan has goals “consistent” with achieving the Desired Future Conditions for the aquifer.

There are now 98 groundwater conservation districts in the state. These districts manage groundwater in diverse aquifers, geographic areas, and population centers. While there are certainly a few districts that may be “bad actors” in the eyes of some, in the 16 years since the state oversight was created in SB 1, only one district has been referred to the Commission on Environmental Quality for action. And, only a handful have been sued.

How many cities, counties and state agencies have been sued in the last 16 years? In a recent committee hearing, Rep. Tracy King (D-Batesville) asked the pertinent question of exactly what problem are we trying to solve with all these bills? Do we really have so many “bad” districts that the judgment of staff at a state agency is better than the local professionals managing groundwater? The data doesn’t seem to support such a conclusion.

Ultimately, the answer to almost every issue being raised with a local district is private property rights. Landowners have an ownership interest in the water below the surface of their land. That ownership gives every landowner an equal right to drill a well, produce groundwater and use the groundwater without waste.

Yes, the districts can regulate these activities to conserve groundwater and prevent “harm” to the aquifer. But, if the district crosses the line into discrimination, or limits production without good science to support the regulation, then the landowner or groundwater rights owner can challenge that action in court.

While some would prefer another solution, the bottom line is that the courthouse is where we defend our rights. And, it is at the courthouse that the law is made clear for others to follow.  Constantly changing the Texas Water Code to address these individual issues just creates more questions that must be answered.

Texas Farm Bureau policy supports local control and opposes state control of groundwater. This policy was adopted by our members many years ago. Our staff is working hard to advocate this policy, but our members must also advocate their policy.

If you support local control of groundwater, then please let your legislators know.

Information on these bills is under the Legislative link of the Texas Farm Bureau website under the Austin Newsletter: http://www.texasfarmbureau.org/AustinNL.aspx.

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