Our Water Matters: 2022 Texas Groundwater Summit focuses on conservation and drought

The Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts held its annual groundwater summit in San Antonio last week. Groundwater professionals, scientists, lawmakers, attorneys, consultants and vendors from across the state gathered for the event, which is now in its 11th year. 

The summit kicked off with a lively panel on “The ‘S’ word: Sustainability in Groundwater,” moderated by Vanessa Puig-Williams of the Environmental Defense Fund. Panelists included Dr. Robert Mace of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment; Wade Oliver of the INTERA Inc., a geoscience and engineering firm; Mitchell Sodek of the Central Texas Groundwater Conservation District; and Deborah Trejo, an attorney who represents several groundwater districts in Texas. 

As readers of “Our Water Matters” will recall from past issues, maintaining our groundwater resources involves such concepts as “groundwater sustainability,” which the U.S. Geological Survey defines as “the development and use of ground water in a manner that can be maintained for an indefinite time without causing unacceptable environmental, economic or social consequences,” and “sustainable yield,” which is the amount of groundwater that can be produced to achieve groundwater sustainability. The panelists discussed the challenges of pursuing and enforcing sustainable pumping of groundwater resources in the real world. Difficulties include the fact that Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, which governs groundwater districts in Texas, does not define sustainability but instead refers merely to “unacceptable” levels of pumping. The definition of “unacceptable” is ultimately a local decision which can vary widely within a given area, including areas that share the same aquifer.

Even if stakeholders may disagree about the definition of “unacceptable,” the panelists pointed out that one of the best ways to achieve sustainability is through conservation. Dr. Mace recommended that groundwater districts reach out to cities and counties within their jurisdictions to “encourage conservation efforts.” According to Mace, these partnerships can be very effective in “making up for GCD [groundwater conservation district] limitations as regards … authority.” By partnering with counties, for example, groundwater conservation districts can advise them on commonsense protections against impacts from development, an area where counties have jurisdiction but groundwater districts do not.

Dr. Mace also suggested that groundwater districts get “good production numbers” to provide a clear understanding of the number of permit holders, municipal water utilities and water supply corporations within a given district and the volumes of groundwater they are pumping. Other ideas included looking at fee reductions to incentivize users to reduce their pumping, encouraging landowners to create conservation easements on their property to protect watersheds, and private-public partnerships to promote the restoration of waterways and experimental approaches, such as managed aquifer recharge.

All of the panelists agreed that sustainability ultimately protects private-property rights in groundwater over the long term by providing a clear framework for ensuring that everyone has the water they absolutely need, while ensuring that the investment-backed expectations of landowners remain realistic and practicable over time.

The realities of groundwater as a finite resource are increasingly clear as Texas continues to face drought conditions. Readers should not be deceived by recent rainfall. The drought is ongoing, and several Texas legislators expressed their concern during a panel at the Groundwater Summit. Senator Sarah Eckhardt (D-District 14), Representative Kyle Kacal (R-District 12), Representative Tracy King (R-District 80 and chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee), and Senator Charles Perry (R-District 28 and chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Rural Affairs Committee) discussed the resource challenges in Texas, where population growth and drought are expected to increase exponentially in coming years. The 2022 Texas State Water Plan predicts that future demand will outstrip supplies by nearly 7 million acre-feet of water per year, with the biggest growth in demand expected from municipal users. Senator Echkhardt pointed out that these projections, which are based on current rainfall patterns, could grow increasingly dire if rainfall decreases “just when that water is needed most.” All the lawmakers emphasized the need for more conservation, while also respecting the private-property rights of landowners to use their groundwater as they see fit. The role of groundwater conservation districts (where they exist) will remain vital in balancing the rights and needs of Texas’ growing population.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He also works 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.