By Liz Carmack, contributing writer
Most of the water consumed in Texas is groundwater. As the demand for this precious resource grows, so does its need for management and protection.
Photo of Krause Springs courtesy of Michael A. Murphy/TxDOT.
Most of the water Texas consumes—about 60 percent—is groundwater. Eighty percent of the resource is used for crop irrigation, but a number of Texas cities also depend upon it. Amarillo, Bryan—College Station, El Paso, Lubbock, Houston, and San Antonio all rely upon wells to supply the needs of their residents, businesses, and industries.
According to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), during the next half century the urban use of groundwater in Texas will grow to exceed irrigation use. Cities will increasingly draw upon groundwater as their populations outpace rural growth. The TWDB also expects available groundwater supplies to decline during that same period by 32 percent.
As the demand for this shrinking resource grows, so does its need for management and protection—a critical task that, in large part, begins at the local level.
In 1949, the State Legislature allowed for the creation of groundwater conservation districts—local governmental entities that work to balance the rights of private landowners with the need for resource protection.
As of September 2009, 96 districts have been established, covering all or part of 152 of Texas’ 254 counties. Their boundaries generally coincide with the boundaries of a single county or multiple counties. Groundwater management areas (GMAs), established by the TWDB, and priority groundwater management areas (PGMAs), established by the TCEQ, generally mimic the boundaries of an aquifer. Multiple districts are usually established within these larger management areas. Texas has 16 GMAs and 7 PGMAs.
Empowered to Protect a Precious Resource
For more than a century, groundwater in Texas has been considered the property of the owner of the overlying land. This rule of capture is sometimes referred to as the “rule of the biggest pump,” because a deep well pumping groundwater at one location can cause the more shallow wells of adjacent landowners to go dry.
“Groundwater conservation districts are important, because they are the only entities in the state authorized to regulate the production and spacing of water wells,” says Kelly Mills, leader of the TCEQ’s Groundwater Planning and Assessment Team. “They help control the rule of capture.”
The grotto at Westcave Preserve in the Texas Hill Country is an example of the type of terrain that occurs near karst aquifers, characterized by springs, caves, and sinkholes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about 40 percent of the groundwater used in the United States for drinking comes from karst aquifers.
Photo courtesy of Michael A. Murphy/TxDOT.
A district’s primary power is its ability to require all wells, with certain exceptions, to be registered and permitted. It can also enact rules that govern the spacing, drilling, equipping, completion, or alteration of wells. Additional mandated duties include the need to keep records of the drilling, equipping, and completion of water wells, and of the production and use of groundwater.
The water-pumping constituents within a district may range from municipalities and industries to ranchers, farmers, and rural homeowners. The district must balance the competing demands of these constituents with its responsibility to manage and conserve the resource.
Primary in its list of duties is the development of an overarching plan to guide its efforts. Within three years of its creation and confirmation, a district must develop a plan that is approved by the TWDB. It must also create the rules necessary to implement its plan.
State law requires the TCEQ to step in when this responsibility is not fulfilled.
“If a district does not adopt a plan or doesn’t re-adopt its plan at the five-year milestone, or if it adopts a plan the TWDB does not approve, or if the State Auditor’s Office finds the district to be not operational, it becomes part of the TCEQ’s jurisdiction,” Mills says.
In such a case, the agency then conducts an investigation and attempts to resolve problems with the district. If that is not possible, it may enter into a formal compliance agreement with the district and set a schedule by which it must work toward achieving compliance. If the issue is still not resolved, the TCEQ can pursue formal enforcement proceedings up to and including district dissolution. This final step occurs rarely.
Regional Planning Now Required
Texas has nine major and 21 minor aquifers. In 2005, Texas legislation required districts to work together within their particular GMA to determine the desired future condition of their shared aquifer. These conditions must be adopted no later than Sept. 1, 2010, and must be reviewed every five years.
Through this coordinated effort, the districts will compare notes on their plans and water usage with the goal of determining how they want the aquifer to look in 50 years. The TWDB will take this information and, through its groundwater availability modeling, determine what the projected groundwater use for each district and each management area should be. This information will help districts understand how they need to regulate the drilling and permitting of water wells.
“Once the desired future condition is adopted and the managed availability is calculated, then the districts will need to amend their water management plans and rules to try to achieve the future conditions,” Mills says.
The information compiled by districts through this coordinated effort will in turn inform regional water planning and be rolled into the state water plan developed by the TWDB. When determining desired future conditions, each district must study the best way to balance its particular groundwater needs with the need to protect their aquifer.
Districts Educate Users, Receive Information, through Alliance
Greg Ellis, executive director of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, says public education and outreach by districts to their water users has helped conserve and protect the resource.
“We’ve definitely had an impact on reducing the total amount of water consumed,” Ellis says. “We’re not only using education programs to stretch groundwater supplies so that they last longer, but to ensure that groundwater is not contaminated.”
Education of alliance members is also important. The group works to make certain that districts have current information about issues and activities relevant to groundwater management, including details about the technical and day-to-day aspects of operating a district. Eighty-two of the state’s 96 districts are members.
Texas Leads in Water Planning
Forty districts were formed during the 45 years following the passage of legislation that enabled the creation of groundwater conservation districts. Then, in 1997, Senate Bill 1—an omnibus water bill—passed, spurring district creation. The law clarifies some district authorities and recognizes districts as the state’s preferred method of groundwater management. During the past 12 years, 58 new districts have been created. Many of these are now multi-county districts, illustrating a recent legislative trend to favor regional water planning.
“Overall, I think the planning process is extremely important,” Ellis says. “By setting limits on how much we can pump from each aquifer [through the groundwater management area planning process], we are creating an atmosphere where water planning can be successful.”
“Texas is a leader when it comes to water planning,” Mills says. “I think this state is miles ahead of most other states. The changes that the Legislature enacted to require regional water plans and local buy-in to feed the state water plan have been instrumental. It’s a really good process and one that I’m proud of for my state.”
Texas Groundwater Protection Committee Celebrates 20 Years
Two decades ago, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee (TGPC) to improve coordination among the state’s multiple water and waste regulatory programs. The TGPC focuses on protecting the quality of the state’s groundwater resources.
According to its latest biennial report, Activities and Recommendations of the TGPC: Report to the 81st Legislature, the group implements the state’s policy of non-degradation of the state’s groundwater resources by “identifying opportunities to improve existing groundwater quality programs and promote coordination among agencies.”
In addition to its biennial report to the Legislature, the TGPC prepares a number of publications, including the Texas Groundwater Protection Strategy and the Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Report.
“Ninety-nine percent of the work is done by subcommittees,” says Cary Betz, technical specialist in the TCEQ’s Water Supply Division, who represents TCEQ Executive Director Mark Vickery as committee chair. “And these subcommittees draw upon the expertise of ten member organizations to identify needs to be addressed and pinpoint data that should be collected to achieve the committee’s mission.”
In 2004, for example, the TGPC’s Research Subcommittee helped identify and get funding for important research on groundwater contamination. Arsenic was turning up in the groundwater of various areas of the state. The results were surprising. The research found that the chemical element was leaching into groundwater from underground deposits of volcanic ash.
“We will be able to tell water suppliers ‘don’t drill into this zone, or case off that zone,’” Betz says. Casing off a zone, in this instance, means installing a protective sleeve of pipe (casing) on a particular strata to prevent the arsenic-contaminated water from entering the well bore and commingling with the rest of the water in the well.
The committee’s State Management Plan for Prevention of Pesticide Contamination of Groundwater, which addresses potential and actual groundwater contamination from pesticides, is paramount among the TGPC’s accomplishments during the last 20 years.
“It was a large effort that spanned about five years, Betz says. “This is the single most important achievement we’ve made.”
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