Groundwater in Texas is the source of about 60% of the state’s annual water use. This vital water supply also provides an estimated 30% of the flow in rivers across the state — and even more during droughts.
With the state's population booming and its climate ever more susceptible to drought, underground aquifers are increasingly vulnerable to overpumping in Texas. That’s a huge risk to farmers, ranchers, big cities, small towns and wildlife. It also threatens the rivers and streams that the state is trying to protect.
Beneath the Surface [PDF], a report by EDF, outlines five major groundwater management challenges facing Texas in an effort to build a foundation for meaningful advances to more sustainable groundwater management in the state.
Basic tenets of Texas groundwater management
To set the stage, the report highlights six key features of groundwater management in Texas.
- Groundwater is private property.
- Groundwater is primarily managed by groundwater conservation districts.
- Groundwater levels are declining.
- Groundwater and surface water are managed under separate legal regimes.
- Groundwater is viewed as an extractable and transferable resource.
- The current management framework for groundwater is challenged.
Five major challenges
After providing this context, the report delves into five of the most important challenges to holistic, proactive groundwater management for Texas, providing details about related litigation and legislation. The five types of challenges explored in the report are:
- Challenges related to regulating privately owned, yet shared groundwater.
- Challenges related groundwater management at the groundwater conservation district level.
- Challenges related to groundwater and surface water connection.
- Challenges related to sustainable management of groundwater.
- Challenges related to marketing and exporting groundwater.
The 2012 Texas Supreme Court case Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day ruled groundwater regulation, similar to oil and gas, affords a landowner his fair share of groundwater beneath his property. But the court also stated landowners are subject to reasonable regulation by groundwater conservation districts. This case has raised questions about what is “fair share” and “reasonable regulation.”
These districts, currently 98 in the state, face many challenges, including lack of funding and tension between managing groundwater based on a political rather than hydrogeological context.
Texas water law fails to recognize the hydrogeological connection between groundwater and surface water. The absence of a comprehensive framework for managing them together increases the risk of groundwater pumping reducing flows in creeks and rivers.
In Texas, the law leans toward maximizing groundwater withdrawals rather than sustainable management goals.
Some utilities and cities are turning to importing groundwater from rural areas of Texas as an additional source of water to address population growth, pitting rural interests against urban.
The report also identifies ways the Legislature and groundwater conservation districts can address these challenges and move toward more sustainable management of groundwater in Texas. For instance, the Legislature should provide additional funding for modeling and data to support more informed decisions by districts, coordination among districts whose boundaries cover a single aquifer and building a better understanding of the connections between groundwater and surface water.