Our Water Matters

Origins of the groundwater district in Presidio County

Happy 2022, faithful readers, and welcome back to a new year of “Our Water Matters”!

In past issues we looked at how groundwater districts became established as the preferred method of groundwater management in Texas because they provide for local control by those most familiar with the resource and most affected by any regulation. The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District was established by House Bill 2817 which passed the Texas House and Senate in May of 1993. This enabling legislation called for a five-member board of directors and empowered the district to levy an ad valorem (property) tax not to exceed $0.05 per $100 of assessed valuation. According to Teresa Todd, who was appointed Presidio County attorney in 1994 and then won election to the post in 1996 and served until 2004, the creation of the district involved a two-part process. Lawmakers had to create the district and then the voters had to approve it in a local election.

But first, a little background: Senate Bill 1, which passed in 1997, established the regional water planning process (see “Our Water Matters” #7). Todd and others including (former) Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin and current General Manager of the Jeff Davis County Underground Water Conservation District Janet Adams were all deeply involved in the regional water planning group from the very beginning. “We had started regional water planning,” said Todd. “And so there was a lot of regional awareness.” Folks in the area were already nervous because the Public Service Board of the City of El Paso had purchased Antelope Valley near Valentine for $2 million in 1992 as a future source of water for its municipal users. This purchase was a sign of things to come.

Cities throughout arid West Texas and elsewhere have since been exploring ways to meet local demand through a practice known as “water ranching.” Since the rule of capture in Texas essentially allows, with some limited exceptions, a landowner to pump as much groundwater as the landowner chooses, without liability to neighbors who claim that the pumping has depleted their wells, entities can purchase land for the groundwater beneath and export it out of the area to meet their own needs.

One of the original parties to the Far West Texas Regional Water Planning Group was El Paso and, according to Todd, “El Paso wasn’t being transparent with their plans, so it became apparent that we needed to protect ourselves [by forming local groundwater districts] … There was a very real sense that groundwater districts were the only way to protect your water from anyone that wanted it.”

Todd recalled that, after the enabling legislation was passed, the groundwater district had to be approved by the voters by September 1, 1999. The cause of the delay between passage of the legislation and approval by the voters remains unclear. But by the time Todd found out about this “closing window,” she only had about a week to get everything filed and approved for the actual election “with a grace period of something like one day. It’s unbelievable that it happened at all.”

The voters approved the creation of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District in an election on August 31, 1999. The district's original board of directors included Jim White (president), Johnny Surratt (vice president), Ike Livingston (secretary), Terry Bishop and Robby Cabezuela. The district’s first general manager was Janet Adams.

When asked why the confirmation election did not include the property tax provided for in the enabling legislation, Todd said that there was a feeling that “it’ll never pass.” She personally felt that “once the voters saw the value of the groundwater district” there would be another election to approve the tax. But it never happened. “That was not the intention,” Todd said. But by then, “property values started going through the roof.” And “many of the counties around here just ended up funding the districts, so that was that.”

In looking back, Todd recalled that the establishment of the district “was charmed. It was meant to be.” She also emphasized that “concern about groundwater was widespread. The ranchers were really on board. Everybody cared about it a lot.”

Despite the unpopularity of taxes and the tough odds of getting the voters to approve a new property tax for the groundwater district this coming November, Todd is hopeful that people of all political stripes will merely see this as a bit of unfinished business. Ultimately, funding the groundwater district is the only way to protect our own self-interest and ensure local control of our groundwater.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]