our water matters
What is a groundwater conservation district, and what dies it do?
By the Big Bend Conservation Alliance
Since 1904, Texas water law has been based on “the rule of capture,” which is derived from English common law. The rule of capture states that an owner of the land may pump unlimited quantities of water from under his land, regardless of the impact that action might have on his neighbor’s ability to obtain water on his own land.
Some limitations do exist in common law on the landowner’s right to capture and use water. The landowner cannot capture with the purpose of injuring a neighbor, causing willful waste, or causing subsidence of neighboring land. A surface landowner may also sell the groundwater he captures below his surface estate for off-site use by a third party.
As the Texas population and demand for water has grown, the legislature has recognized the need to moderate the rule of capture, so as to best manage our water resources. In 1949 it acted to regulate groundwater by the formation of Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCD). The Brewster County GCD was formed by legislative action (House Bill 787) on April 20, 2001 and confirmed through an election on November 6, 2001. The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District was legislatively created (House Bill 2817) and confirmed through an election on August 31, 1999. The Jeff Davis County Underground Water Conservation District was created by legislative action (House Bill 2866) on May 31,1993.
A GCD has general authority to make and enforce rules, including rules limiting groundwater production based on tract size or the spacing of wells, to provide for conserving, preserving, protecting, and recharging of the groundwater, preventing subsidence and waste, including groundwater contamination. A GCD may implement that authority in two ways: rulemaking and permitting.
GCDs can be funded through ad valorem taxes. The authorized maximum is 50 cents/$100 assessed valuation, which must have voter approval. Funding may also be through the imposition of water use fees upon large-scale pumpers in the district as is the case in Brewster County.
Water is commonly measured in acre-feet. One acre-foot (about 326,000 gallons) is best visualized by imagining an area about the size of a football field covered one foot deep with water. An average American household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water per year for indoor and outdoor use.
Annual production fees are statutorily capped at $1 per acre-foot for water used for agricultural use, and $10 per acre-foot for water used for any other purpose. In gallons, the agricultural use fee equals three tenths (.3) of one cent per 1,000 gallons and three (3) cents per 1,000 gallons for all other purposes. There are two other categories of wells: 1) Exempt wells which are domestic/ residential wells or livestock wells and never pay fees and 2) water exporters who are charged a fee of 4.5 cents per 1,000 gallons.
The GCD is tasked with devising a groundwater management plan. The purpose of the plan is to make sure no one pumps so much water that there is none left for the rest of us and future generations. In other words, to make sure pumping is sustainable relative to aquifer recharge. The average annual rainfall is known and good estimates of how much of that rainfall will recharge a given aquifer have been researched.
The way our GCDs decide how much water can be pumped is to collect data on how many wells there are. Commercial wells or water systems are metered and an average estimation of how much an exempt residential well will pump is calculated. As long as the number of exempt wells is known, the estimate will be reasonable. This is one reason all well owners should register their wells.
The collection and analysis of data is a major component of how fees are assessed. The fees assessed on water supply corporations will likely be passed on to the consumer.
Three cents per 1,000 gallons is a small price to pay to support the collection of data. This information provides a basis for sustainable pumping and protects us against a water producer who may want to pipe too much of our water to a large city or industrial complex.
The Big Bend Conservation Alliance Water Group is an all-volunteer organization whose mission is to celebrate and preserve the natural, cultural and economic resources of the Big Bend region of Texas, with a focus on our precious water. www.bigbendconservationalliance.org.