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Proposition 6 — not a long-term water solution
Darrell T. Brownlow, Ph.D.October 23, 2013 | 4,132 views | 2 comments
This is Part II of an analysis of Proposition 6, to amend the Texas Constitution, on the ballot before voters in the Nov. 5 general election.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not telling anyone how to vote on Proposition 6. If you know enough details and believe it supports your best interests -- whether that is local, regional, or even statewide -- vote for it. I also know that the state water plan includes 15 other regions besides South Central Texas, each with their unique issues. I haven’t studied those plans.
However, a rural landowner who is reliant upon groundwater understands that the value of the surface is worth far less without the rights to the groundwater beneath it. As such, any governmental actions that may diminish the rights to the groundwater and the availability thereof must always be viewed with great caution and even healthy skepticism. Government actions to fund water-supply projects, like all government funds, will most certainly have strings attached. What those “strings” are is unknown at this time.
As I mentioned in Part I last week, my experience is that money, or the lack thereof, has never been the driver in implementing projects in the water plan. My experience is that every entity that proposed projects to the regional planning group was doing so on grounds that there was a demand for that water and those needing the water would be paying for the water.
Certainly, there were some projects more expensive than others and obvious prioritizations were made -- desalination and new reservoirs on the high end and local groundwater and conservation measures on the lower end. As we know, cost is not the only consideration; impact on the environment and private property rights are just as important.
The regional water planning process is complex and dynamic, with changes in demand and supply occurring with each five-year planning cycle. Changes in law, in how regions cooperate with each other, in weather, in regulations, and in scientific knowledge and information often mean that by the time the plan is approved, it is already outdated.
There have been nine legislative sessions over the course of three statewide water plans, and with each legislative session comes change. So what is it about this new funding, specifically of water projects, that would result in a change from the past 15 years? In my opinion, very little.
Would access to the new money address the critical issues that have prevented us from implementing water projects in the past? Would the new funding increase our knowledge and understanding of the aquifers and the effects of overpumping?
Would the money help clean our rivers and improve the habitats of our bays and estuaries? Would the money be used to increase our knowledge of the relationship between groundwater and surface water? Would the money be used to better fund and staff our regulatory agencies such that more timely analysis of new permit or permit modification requests and decision-making can occur?
Would the money be used to sufficiently fund the Texas Water Development Board’s own efforts to work with the groundwater districts and groundwater management areas that are tasked with defining the available groundwater in rural areas? Would the money even support more funding for the regional water-planning process in a manner sufficient such that the entities whose projects may receive funding are not having to subsidize the water-planning process itself?
While it is a fact that the water plan is obviously far more complex than the way I described it in Part I, in my opinion, the absence of funding for these issues is the real driver in why it takes so long to get anything done. Until these fundamental issues are adequately addressed, simply directing money to implement specific water projects is unlikely to yield the results the politicians are claiming will occur. It’s analogous to a boy who breaks his leg and is given the money to buy a bicycle. Fix what’s broken first, then buy the bicycle.
And now there is a new demand on rural groundwater -- “frack” water, a demand that was not recognized in the 2012 State Water Plan. There is little argument that the Texas economy, and nowhere more evident than in the Eagle Ford region of South Texas, has boomed because of the windfall of shale fracking. That windfall is directly related to the availability of groundwater in the rural areas.
Except for reducing some availability of groundwater that the big municipalities may desire, fracking does not take water away from the large municipalities that need water. Fracking is occurring principally in areas where the regional water plan indicates that unallocated groundwater supplies are reported to exist.
This fact suggests to me that the rural groundwater interests -- primarily agriculture, livestock, small rural municipalities -- should work toward forming an alliance with oil and gas operators to ensure adequate groundwater supplies are available for meeting both the fracking needs and the existing and expanding rural water needs.
In closing, all of us -- both rural and urban residents -- must recognize that with access to surface water so heavily restricted and with the Edwards Aquifer limited by environmental concerns, all the “cheap” water is gone. But turning to rural groundwater and backing it with big state dollars has its own drawbacks, as I have outlined, and it’s ultimately not a long-term solution either.
I realize most of my words here may not win me any friends with the politicians and lobbyists who are anxiously awaiting the power associated with dividing up $2 billion, but maybe, just maybe, there’s at least one legislator out there who will more closely examine and supervise the spending after this thing passes.
Darrell Brownlow is a geologist with a Ph.D. from Texas Tech University. From 1999 to 2012, he was a small business representative to the South Central Texas Regional Water Planning group and from 2001‐11, he was Gov. Perry’s appointee to the Evergreen Groundwater Conservation District. He currently serves as an elected director on the board of the San Antonio River Authority. He is a rancher and landowner in Wilson and LaSalle counties. His opinions are his own and are not intended to reflect the views of any board or organization which he currently serves upon or has in the past.
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