Texas Senate asked to mandate science classes for local water officials

Texas lawmakers have discussed a proposal for local groundwater management officials to be required to attend science-based continuing education classes to improve their stewardship of the state’s underground aquifers.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water and Rural Affairs last week, lawmakers exchanged views on the idea after it was brought before the panel by central Texas ranchers.

Texas law gives Groundwater Conservation Districts the power to permit, meter, and limit the amount of underground water that may be withdrawn by private landowners for such uses as ranching, agriculture, urban development, or oilfield fracking. In practice, these districts often allow landowners to pump as much as they want, even if it is unclear whether this could deplete underground aquifers shared across property lines.

The legislative hearing on June 3rd was called to discuss protecting private landowners’ rights to pump water by streamlining “onerous” water permitting processes. Witnesses including the Texas Farm Bureau testified in favor of simplifying the regulatory process but others asked for more rather than less stringent control over aquifer use.

Curtis Chubb of the Central Texas Aquifers Coalition told legislators, “We need your help in protecting the groundwater rights of landowners who are regulated by groundwater districts… our groundwater district has approved 105,000 acre feet per year pumping permits even though the MAG (Modeled Available Groundwater) is only 40,000 acre-feet. So it’s 160% more. How did this happen? The reasons for this extreme amount of over-permitting include the fact that the district’s directors have no educational background in groundwater.”

Chubb, owner of a 90-acre ranch in Milam County, continued, “Somehow together they decided it didn’t matter how much they permitted so much as pumped. Because of that flawed decision we now have extreme over-permitting that jeopardizes the future of our two counties.” He went on to ask for the legislation to require groundwater district directors to complete 20 classroom hours of education on groundwater management each year, and 40 hours for general-managers.

Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) responded favorably to this idea saying, “I know everybody is going to groan, but there is some truth to that. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.” She compared it to continuing education requirements that sometimes apply to school board members, noting that some of her constituents have told her such classes are helpful.

“The devil is in the details of who teaches that – but there is a lot of continuing education out there,” said Kolkhorst.

‘I don’t disagree with the concept…’

Chairman of the committee Senator Charles Perry of Lubbock said he agrees with the idea in principle. “I’d say I agree with the idea,” Perry said, before cautioning that he thinks “the education shouldn’t have to be, I would say, a lot, to get basic nomenclature with the practical effect of when you pull from it [an aquifer] and when does it recharge.”

“So I don’t disagree with the concept but… it’s one of those areas where you could get overzealous.”

Chubb of the Aquifers Coalition interjected, “I just think it’s important to know what you’re doing because these are big decisions.”

To which Perry said, “You raise a really valid point. If you’re up here on the outcrop it does effect you differently than if you’re in the sweet spot. And that’s not where we’ve done a good job as a state…”

Chubb: “Is it possible to stop the loss? These people depend on groundwater. I don’t think they want money, they want groundwater.”

Perry replied by raising the prospect that ranchers on outcrops could remunerated for their loss of groundwater but also need to be protected from total loss of water. “It’s what distinguishes this for me from an oil and gas argument. I like the fact that I have oil and gas in my car.. but I don’t have to have it to live tomorrow,” he said.

Another member of the Central Texas Aquifers coalition, rancher Calvin Whitely of Milano said, “In my opinion the aquifer (in my area) has been over-permitted and I think it will cause damage in the future.”

“We don’t mind sharing our water with those that are in need but what we’re actually asking them to do is slow down a little bit. We can go at this in a slower manner and after a period of time if the aquifer’s not being hurt, then issue more permits, go from there. But we’re dealing with nature and we’re asking that we slow down on the permits.”

Senator Kolkhorst stressed that the state needs to get better at the science of studying aquifers. “I always say when Pandora is out of the box you don’t put Pandora back into the box very well.” Water-drawing, she said, “is a property right but when the straw is in this piece of land and not that piece of land you are sucking from my cup as well.”

‘Local regulation is the best framework’

Other witnesses at the hearing lobbied for changes to the regulatory framework to ease access to underground water resources. Russell Johnson, a lawyer who has represented clients seeking to sell underground water, spoke against “putting water resources off limits.” He called the current regulatory system “badly flawed and often inordinately complicated.”

“The planning process needs to be reconfigured,” he said. Johnson disclosed that he represents a client who wants to export water to Travis and Williamson counties but that this effort has been disrupted by litigation.

The Texas Farm Bureau, for its part, thinks that the current framework for regulating groundwater is generally a good one because control stays with local districts that are sensitive to the needs of farmers. “The Texas Farm Bureau position is that local regulation is the best framework… Our members are very adamant about this position. They do not want the state or some regional entity regulating groundwater,” said Ronnie Minnick, a Farm Bureau representative and rancher from Hondo.

“Groundwater rights are based upon owning land,” he said, defending ranchers’ rights to pump water.

The representative of a Panhandle water district testified that decision-making on water-drawing needs to reflect a balance of concern for conservation, science, and private property rights. She stressed that in her district this has not meant encumbering ranchers from drawing water. “We have an average of less than 24 hours” for issuing permits, said Victoria Messer-Whitehead, government affairs director at High Plains Water District in Lubbock.

Messer-Whitehead remarked, “While we understand that not all aquifers are the same and other parts of the state face different issues, we truly believe that a GCD (Groundwater Conservation District) can and should recognize private ownership of groundwater. It may take a little while to find that balance but we as GCDs can find that balance on a local level.”

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