Our Water Matters

Groundwater joint planning: A pathway to a desired future

Groundwater management areas (GMAs) across the state are currently in the thick of a new round of groundwater joint planning, a process that has been taking place in five-year cycles since 2005. The 16 groundwater management areas in Texas were created to “provide for the conservation, preservation, protection, recharging, and prevention of waste of the groundwater,” according to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). GMAs seek to achieve these objectives by studying the available data and developing what are known as desired future conditions, or DFCs, for the aquifers they manage. DFCs are commonly understood to involve acceptable drawdown levels in regional aquifers over a 50-year time window.

GMA 4 is the management area that covers the Big Bend region, including all of Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties along with parts of Culberson and Hudspeth counties. GMA 4’s joint planning encompasses the Edwards-Trinity, Pecos Valley, Bone Spring-Victorio Peak, Capitan Reef Complex, Igneous, Marathon, Rustler, and the West Texas Bolsons Aquifers (in whole or in part).

Robert Bradley is a groundwater technical assistance manager with the TWDB, who has been advising GMA 4 on its joint planning efforts for 18 years now. When asked to explain the process to a layperson, he described it as a “forum for stakeholders to come together and discuss groundwater issues and planning … the process gives a framework whereby groundwater resources are managed for future generations.“ He also stated that the process is “the way by which groundwater conservation districts within a groundwater management area cooperatively work together to develop policy statements called desired future conditions. These statements describe how districts want the aquifer conditions to be at some point in the future.”

In addition to the data collected by each individual groundwater district, GMAs can also use groundwater availability models, or GAMs, developed by TWDB to understand the volumes available for future planning purposes. Once a GMA arrives at its proposed DFCs, each groundwater conservation district has 90 days to accept public comments, which are then incorporated into the DFCs that the GMA ultimately adopts. According to Bradley: “These desired future conditions are then used by the TWDB to estimate pumping volumes known as modeled available groundwater [or MAGs]. These estimates are the amount of groundwater that can be pumped to achieve the desired future condition for an aquifer.”

GMAs? DFCs? MAGs? GAMs? The alphabet soup of groundwater management in Texas can be difficult to navigate for the ordinary folks that comprise groundwater conservation district boards across the state. This is why many GMAs hire consultants to guide them through the regulatory labyrinth of the joint planning process. At a recent meeting in Van Horn, GMA 4 representatives hired RMBJ Geo, Inc. and Close Consulting Group LLC to manage the statutory timelines, gather the requisite data, run groundwater models, and write the explanatory report. According to Amy Bush of RMBJ Geo, “One of the biggest obstacles to effective joint planning is most people just don’t understand the whole process. The … multiple steps and organizations involved are enough to make you pull your hair out … The process includes stakeholder input at several points, and requires the consideration of nine factors, including aquifer uses and conditions, environmental issues, private property rights, and local economies.” GMA 4 representatives were motivated to hire Bush and her colleagues because of their experience with other GMAs, where a widely divergent availability of data, highly variable demands on groundwater resources and extreme budget differences among member districts create difficulties that are not dissimilar to the difficulties faced by GMA 4. 

According to Bradley, the most challenging aspect of this work is the “lack of public participation in the groundwater joint planning process. Sometimes folks don’t get involved in the process until the later stages of planning when decisions have already been made. And while it’s helpful to have that engagement, it would be most beneficial to everyone involved if there’s a high level of engagement earlier and throughout the process.”

The next meeting of Groundwater Management Area 4 will take place at the Culberson County Groundwater Conservation District office in Van Horn on Tuesday, November 14, at 10 a.m. 

Local groundwater management area meeting schedules can also be found at: http://www.twdb.texas.gov/groundwater/management_areas/schedule/index.asp

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].