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Texas growth hinges on water legislation

The water dilemma in Texas runs through channels as diverse and unpredictable as a Brazos tributary, including: a population that will more than double in 50 years, an aquifer that diminishes annually, prolonged drought that strains both underground and surface water supplies, and a legislative body that will change drastically with redistricting, leaving rural Texas under-represented.

Consequently, water will remain the No. 1 concern for west Texas for the foreseeable future, according to state legislators and a water program administrator.

Texas state Sens. J.E. Brown and Robert Duncan and Rep. Gary Walker outlined the state legislature's role in managing water resources during a recent forum on the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock.

Legislators said a water law passed in 1997, SB1, likely prevented a significant water shortage before the end of the decade. Brown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, said SB1 “began the process of changing the public's attitude about water.”

In current and future water management strategies, Brown and other legislators said, the legislature will try to maintain long-held rights of landowners, including the rule of capture.

“Rule of capture means, absent malice or willful waste of water, a landowner has the right to take all the water he wants from under his property and do with it as he pleases and will not be liable to neighbors for restriction of use,” Duncan explained. “The rule of capture is a pretty good rule if you're the one doing the capturing. But the legislature is the proper venue to take up any limitations on the rule of capture.”

Legislators also promote maintaining local control of a region's water resources through water districts.

“I'd like to see inter-basin transfer provisions,” Brown said. “To get private parties involved, we have to let water have value and marketability.”

“Through SB1 we have the planning process in place and people involved,” said Walker, who chairs the House Land and Resource Management Committee. “Water will be the long-term problem for Texas, and in the future the legislature will change with even more influence going to urban representatives. We know that in 20 years we'll have a bigger demand for water than we have supplies.”

Distribution of Texas' water resources is quite variable. “We have good supplies along the Coastal Bend and in southeast Texas,” Walker said. “We have good reservoirs in central Texas. West Texas, however, is a critical area.”

Walker said Texas must maintain adequate water to support agriculture. “We don't want to get into a situation with food similar to our dependence on foreign oil. I hope we never get to the point where someone else has control of our food and fiber supply. But if farmers can't make a living, they'll have to do something else.”

Walker said inter-basin transfer could help more arid regions of the state if water can be transferred economically from areas where supplies are plentiful. “We will need infrastructure to move water,” he said.

Duncan said he “supports water legislation. Without proper planning, we will not be prepared,” he said. “In 2025, the population of Texas will be 29 million. And without a successful agricultural economy, the growth potential of the state will be limited.”

“Without a management plan, the state will be short of water,” said Bill Mullican, director of Water Resource Planning. “With management, we should have an adequate supply.”

Mullican said some parts of the state would have no trouble meeting water needs by 2050. “Other areas can not meet their needs now, with a severe drought. And industry shuts down without water.”

Future water demand will be met from six primary sources, he said. The breakdown is: Surface water 66.3 percent of demand; conservation, 13.5 percent; reuse, 5.8 percent; desalinization, 2.5 percent, other (weather modification, brush control, etc.) 1.2 percent; groundwater, 10.7 percent.

The next water legislation, SB2, will “increase the emphasis on conservation. All plans will be required to include conservation or provide a good reason why not.”

Mullican said the state plans to provide more financial assistance to local governments to implement regional water plans. “We have to improve conservation on farms, in factories and in homes,” he said.

He expressed some concern over water marketing, which he viewed as a “threat to rural communities. We have to protect local water resources,” he said. “We see significant support for legislation that maintains local water district control.”

Other goals include facilitating public and private water partnerships and providing a rural water assistance fund.

He said modifying playas (desert basins that temporarily become lakes following rainfall) could help rural areas enhance aquifer recharge.

“We have to identify which playas (of the 20,000 on the High Plains) should be modified to catch more water.”

A pilot program for voluntary agricultural water use metering also may help farmers use water more efficiently, Mullican said.

“Just 12 years ago, voluntary metering met with extreme disapproval. Now farmers use it as a conservation tool. We have 400 meters in a 17-county pilot program. Data from this program will increase our understanding of groundwater volume used for irrigation.”

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