Lawmakers, landowners scrutinize water rights

Courtesy Texas Tribune

AUSTIN — Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas economist Keith Phillips vividly recalls a visit to Amarillo two decades ago. After speaking about groundwater rights at a business conference, someone in the audience walked up to him to call him a communist.

Phillips, one of the best-known economic forecasters in the state, said he was neither surprised nor offended.

“The problem with having property rights on groundwater is that you have to have meters on wells,” Phillips said after speaking at a recent water summit sponsored by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas.

“And you know West Texas, they don’t want government intervention,” he said. “And as long as water isn’t scarce, as long as there is plenty of water to go around, it makes sense not to have meters on wells. If water was well-contained within each person’s property you wouldn’t need property rights.”

But times have sure changed.

The current devastating drought has made landowners and local officials everywhere aware that water rights start at one’s own backyard, especially in hard-hit areas such as the Texas Panhandle and the South Plains, Phillips said.

In West Texas, people became more aware of water rights after billionaire T. Boone Pickens proposed building a pipeline to sell water to San Antonio, said Phillips, who hasn’t been back to Amarillo but has visited other communities in the region.

“People began asking, ‘What do we do to stop him? We can’t stop him unless we have rights allocated to individual landowners, and T. Boone Pickens would simply have a limited amount of water that way.’”

State Sen. Kel Seliger, a member of the Texas Senate Natural Resources Committee during his 10 years in the Legislature, agreed with Phillips.

“I think that for a long, long time people have taken it for granted,” said Seliger, R-Amarillo.

“But it has been less true for years, years and years starting back in the mid-’90s when the city of Amarillo, when I was mayor, started to acquire water rights.”
“And then, the recent drought has sharpened the focus of everybody in the state,” Seliger added. “In our part of the state, when we look at the decline of water over the last few years, it’s kind of gotten people’s attention — as it should.”

Like other lawmakers, Seliger said he is encouraged the public has become more aware of the severity of the water crisis.
“Awareness of the scarcity of water is a resource,” he said. “It is encouraging that a very, very broad part of the populace is increasingly aware of that.”

When the Legislature is back in session in January, the water issue will pick up where it left off last session, predicted state Rep. Doug Miller, former chairman of the board of Edwards Aquifer Authority.

“This is absolutely a continuation and part of the implementation process of what we need to do to fix our water challenges in Texas,” said Miller, R-New Braunfels.

In last year’s session, the lawmakers overwhelmingly approved major water legislation, mainly a bill that would authorize the Legislature to withdraw $2 billion from the rainy day fund to begin financing the state’s $53 billion, 50-year water plan. And thanks to Proposition 6, which Texas voters overwhelmingly approved on Nov. 5, the funding is now available,

For lawmakers and water experts, as well as for landowners and local officials in hard-hit areas, the issue is getting more attention than in previous years because the population of Texas is projected to increase from 26 million to 42 million by 2060.

“Population growth will be concentrated along the Interstate 35 corridor, where water use is growing and surface water supplies are shrinking,” the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas wrote in a 74-page report distributed at its all-day conference.

Danny D. Reible, a water expert at the University of Texas and chairman of the conference, calls the 2011 drought “the worst single-year drought in Texas’ recorded history.”

“Meeting residential and economic development requirements of a population that will nearly double over the next 50 years will require dramatic improvements in water conservation and reuse, as well as tapping new sources of water,” Reible wrote.


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