Our Water Matters: Vote “Yes” on Proposition 1

Vote “Yes” on Proposition 1

When it comes to groundwater, Texas law is unique. For over a century, the courts have repeatedly upheld what is known as the “Rule of Capture.” This legal doctrine essentially allows, with some limited exceptions, a landowner to pump as much groundwater as the landowner chooses without liability to neighbors whose wells go dry. But the Texas Legislature also gives local communities the option to form a groundwater conservation district to negotiate the fine line between competing groundwater users. These districts are the preferred means of groundwater management in Texas because they provide for local control by those most familiar with the resource and most affected by any regulation. 

Groundwater districts are not distributed uniformly throughout the state. In fact, there are only about 100 such districts in all of Texas. Williamson County, north of Austin, has seen an explosion in growth in recent decades but has no groundwater district. As farmers operating for generations in the county have seen their wells dry up, they have had no recourse under the law and no groundwater district to fight for their interests. 

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District was formed in direct response to the City of El Paso’s purchase of Antelope Valley in the north of Presidio County back in 1992 as a future source of water for its municipal users. Because El Paso would be able to pump and export as much water as it chose under the Rule of Capture, local leaders and landowners consulted with their state representative to gain the protections that only a groundwater district can provide.

Most well owners are exempt from regulation by a groundwater district. But large commercial users and exporters must apply for an operating permit from the local groundwater district. The permitting process often requires the applicant to prove that their well can produce the volume of water they want without negative impacts on neighbors. Permits can also include conditions that require a reduction in pumping if neighboring wells start to go down. Districts can also install equipment in nearby wells to monitor impacts on the aquifer and take any necessary action.

Districts are created through what is known as “enabling legislation,” which is a law that the Legislature must pass to define how a district will be governed and funded. Presidio County’s enabling legislation was passed in 1993 and stated that the district would have the power to tax. But when the voters were asked to approve the creation of the district in 1999, the ballot did not include any taxing language. Instead, the commissioners simply funded the district out of the county’s budget over the next couple of decades. But it was recently determined that this arrangement is not legal because it violates the district’s enabling legislation.

In order to bring the groundwater district into compliance with the law without raising property taxes, the Presidio County commissioners and the groundwater district entered into an interlocal cooperation agreement that provides for a “tax-rate swap.” This means that the county will lower its tax rate to offset the groundwater district’s tax rate so no one’s taxes will go up as a result of Proposition 1. 

The work of the groundwater district is essential to understanding the health of the aquifers that sustain us. The monitoring and data collection activities of most districts are funded through tax-payer dollars. But Presidio County’s district has been very successful in obtaining funding through grants and partnerships so that we can continue to operate on a very conservative budget. In fact, dollar for dollar, the district generates more value for taxpayers than any other taxing entity, and our grant-writing efforts and strategic partnerships will ensure that it stays that way.

Proposition 1 seeks to direct a portion of the taxes you’re already paying to the county and shift it to directly fund the groundwater district. The taxing authority granted under Proposition 1 is required by law. If the voters do not approve Proposition 1, the groundwater district and all of the work it is doing will disappear. Groundwater in Presidio County would then be governed exclusively by the Rule of Capture.

Individuals can often feel powerless in the face of the overwhelming challenges of modern life. But Proposition 1 is a concrete step that every voter can take. It gives our community the best shot possible at protecting our groundwater and ensuring a prosperous future.

Early voting is April 24 through May 2 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Election Day is Saturday, May 6, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Vote at the PAC in Presidio and the Casner Room in Marfa. 

Visit pcuwcd.org to learn more.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee and president of the Marfa Parks and Recreation Board. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.  He can be reached at [email protected].