Flawed Groundwater Planning Process Puts Texans at Risk

Landmark EDF report connects myriad problems in Texas’ groundwater planning process — and offers solutions for legislative leaders

January 24, 2023
Avalon Fajardo-Anstine, 720-447-8224, afajardoanstine@edf.org

Texas’ process for protecting its groundwater resources is fundamentally flawed — lacking critical funding, science, and planning tools, failing to safeguard future groundwater supplies, and endangering both the water security of Texas communities and the property rights of landowners.

Those are the key findings of a new report released today by the Environmental Defense Fund. The report takes an unprecedented, holistic look at the constraints that are limiting groundwater planning in Texas and undermining vital water supplies that current and future generations of Texans are counting on.

“For many Texans, aquifers are infrastructure. They provide water not only for landowners and communities, but also can provide much of the surface water that downstream people, businesses and natural resources need,” said Vanessa Puig-Williams, EDF’s Texas Water Program Director, who co-authored the report. “Texas is simply not treating this essential resource with the same attention or urgency that’s paid to human infrastructure like pipes and treatment plants — and that endangers communities across the state.”

The report offers a sweeping look at the process of creating desired future conditions, a key benchmark in water planning that identifies the amount of groundwater needed — aquifer by aquifer — to meet the needs of the people, economies, and natural resources relying on it.

The report finds specifically that:

  • Texas’ system of groundwater planning is badly fragmented and underfunded, spread across myriad local groundwater conservation districts with varying levels of expertise and resources to analyze conditions and sustainably plan for future needs.
  • The Texas Water Development Board — the only state agency with jurisdiction over water planning — has limited ability to ensure that groundwater plans will protect water resources, or to undertake meaningful technical review of submitted explanatory reports and data by districts for meeting goals and targets in their plans.
  • Texas’ State Water Plan is premised on unsustainable planning goals that allow aquifers to decline over time, threatening future groundwater reliability — even as, in real time, groundwater levels are declining across the state.
  • The Water Development Board’s funding for groundwater modeling and technical assistance has declined dramatically over the past decade, dropping nearly 45% since 2011 — without adjusting for inflation — and limiting the support that Texas can provide to under-resourced groundwater districts.
  • Most groundwater districts have little insight into the vital contribution that groundwater makes to surface water supplies that downstream communities depend on during increasingly common dry periods, and the inverse flow where surface water recharges groundwater.
  • There is no uniform way for groundwater conservation districts to consider socioeconomic impacts from declining groundwater levels. This, in particular, represents a threat to rural Texans who depend on groundwater as their water supply.
  • Although groundwater is a private property right, Texas’ groundwater planning framework puts greater emphasis and protection on the right to pump groundwater than the right to conserve it.
  • The state does not require districts even to evaluate how proposed groundwater benchmarks and targets will impact aquifers’ ability to deliver water to people and resources that will need it in the future.

“The failure to sustainably plan for the state’s water needs could create new unmet needs or water shortages,” said Carlos Rubinstein, former Texas Water Development Board Chairman and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Commissioner, who also co-authored the report. “But if the state doesn’t act soon, this failure will grow into a much larger threat, especially for rural communities and landowners that need reliable groundwater.”

The report also lays out a series of recommendations, many of which the state can act on now — especially as legislators convene for this year’s legislative session. Those recommendations include:

  • Appropriating additional money to the Water Development Board to develop more data and improve groundwater models that local districts need.
  • Expanding the scope of groundwater planning — both to analyze the degree to which surface water sustains aquifers and groundwater sustains river and stream flows, and to protect surface water flows, rights and resources.
  • Increasing state funding to help groundwater districts improve modeling, technical assistance and data collection.
  • Requiring districts to provide more narrative, modeling, quantitative analysis, and supporting documentation in explanatory reports on their proposed desired future conditions. 
  • Providing groundwater conservation districts with socioeconomic analyses that evaluate the potential impacts of aquifer depletion — especially on local rural water users and vulnerable and historically underserved communities.
  • Strengthening the Water Development Board’s authority to meaningfully review explanatory reports and supporting data that underpins planning by groundwater conservation districts.
  • Requiring the Water Development Board to model the sustainable yield of aquifers — ensuring groundwater supplies can meet Texas’ needs without depleting aquifers and jeopardizing future generations — and requiring local and regional planning entities to build plans around those aquifer levels.

Read the full report here.

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One of the world’s leading international nonprofit organizations, Environmental Defense Fund (edf.org) creates transformational solutions to the most serious environmental problems. To do so, EDF links science, economics, law, and innovative private-sector partnerships. With more than 3 million members and offices in the United States, China, Mexico, Indonesia and the European Union, EDF’s scientists, economists, attorneys and policy experts are working in 28 countries to turn our solutions into action. Connect with us on Twitter @EnvDefenseFund