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Water may take place with range, barbed wire battles

We ran a story last issue quoting Texas State Senator Bob Deuell, on the need and the likelihood of the state legislature taking up water laws during the next session. I received a number of e-mail responses to that article and have since spent time in Dell City, Texas, researching a potentially far-reaching water rights dispute. Our report on that controversy starts on Page 1.

I've also heard of similar, or at least equally disturbing, water disagreements in other parts of the state. And I rarely go more than a couple of months without someone writing to ask if I have an address, phone number or e-mail contact for T. Boone Pickens. I don't. Apparently, some readers recall an article I did two years ago quoting Mr. Pickens regarding his desire to transport water from the Texas Panhandle, where he has bought considerable acreage, into metropolitan areas where demand will exceed supply within the next few decades. Perhaps they want to disabuse him of the notion. Or maybe they want to sell him some water. Who knows?

I've heard from folks who believe one of the most sacrosanct of Texas property rights laws, the rule of capture, may be outmoded and in need of revision. In fact, the story from last issue mentioned that the Texas legislature might look at that law next session.

The rule of capture, by the way, gives a property owner the right to use as much water as he can capture from underneath his land, as long as it is a reasonable use. The sticky part has always been what, if any, effect one property owner's use would have on his neighbors who share the same aquifer. I've often heard the rule's impact explained as the man with the longest straw gets the most water.

I'll not debate the merits of that law. I'm neither a hydrologist nor a legal authority on water rights. I will say, however, that with controversies over water rights, the absolute certainty that Texas will run short of water within 50 years and the potential for water to stir emotions not unlike the battles over open range and barbed wire, it behooves politicians to figure out an equitable means of allocating water.

My big concern, and admittedly my bias, is that farmers across the Southwest retain ample water to irrigate crops, water livestock and to provide adequate water for family use. (Even my own personal desire that we maintain enough water in our reservoirs and rivers to keep up the fish population takes a backseat to farm needs.)

In the meantime, farmers must stay abreast of what goes on in Austin and what happens with local water districts. Consider getting on those boards to make certain that agricultural interests are represented.

A time is coming when more rural communities will be pressed for their water. Cities will have the funds and the motivation to move into farming communities prospecting for water. And some entities will offer big sums for the right to take water out of farm country.

I hope and believe that research will devise more efficient methods for farmers to irrigate. Others will develop more water-efficient crops. But cotton, grains, cattle, fruits and vegetables demand some water for growth, so the legislature must preserve water rights for rural communities. And, just in case, agricultural interests must make certain that legislators never forget about the needs of rural Texans.

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