Our Water Matters: Protecting Our Municipal Water Supplies

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District was created by the voters back in 1999 for the express purpose of protecting the groundwater of Presidio County. Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, which governs groundwater districts, grants them very limited powers to manage, conserve and protect groundwater. One of the most powerful tools available is permitting. 

The vast majority of wells in the county do not require a permit. But commercial users of water wells are required to maintain a production permit that covers the amount of water they wish to produce from each well. Production permit holders are then required to report their water usage to the groundwater district each year. This information is used to track how much water is being withdrawn from each aquifer to better monitor and protect the groundwater.

The two biggest groundwater users in the county are Presidio and Marfa. Water is a major source of revenue for these cities. Not only do they sell water to local residents and businesses through their water utilities, but they can also sell water for road and other construction projects in the county. Both of these cities currently operate under an obscure rule known as 36.121 of the Texas Water Code, which exempts any city with a population of roughly 133,000 or less from the authority of a local groundwater district. 36.121 places no limits on the amount of water that a city can use or sell. This makes it difficult for a groundwater district to monitor current usage and protect the region’s groundwater. 

36.121 also poses hidden risks for cities. For example, if a commercial interest were to acquire land near one of Presidio’s municipal wells and apply for a permit to export water to Terlingua, the city’s water supply could suffer negative impacts because Presidio is exempt from both the regulations as well as the protections of the local groundwater district. Because the law is extremely limited, a groundwater district has virtually no authority to deny a permit as long as an applicant is able to prove that its well can produce the requested volume and affirm that the water will be put to beneficial use. Presidio could sue the district. Presidio could sue the exporter. But such an approach would be expensive, divisive and potentially unsuccessful.

There is a better way. Presidio and Marfa could opt out of this unnecessary exemption and obtain production permits for the amount they currently produce plus an additional amount for future growth. Like every other production permit holder in the county, the cities would then report their annual usage to the groundwater district. If a trend were to emerge necessitating an increase in a city’s annual water allotment, the city could easily apply for an increase when the production permit renews each year.

Based on our example of a company exporting water to Terlingua from land near Presidio’s wells, there are several protections that a production permit would provide. The district would have the authority to require the new applicant to install a monitor well between its wells and Presidio’s wells. It could require a pump test to observe any changes in water levels in the monitor well or the city’s wells. Most significantly, the district could include a condition in the permit to require the new user to curtail (or reduce) future production if water levels begin to drop in municipal or monitor wells. 

All of this protection will cost each city only $100 per year for the application/renewal fee because the district will no longer be charging production fees now that it is a taxing entity following passage of Proposition 1 this past May. The district amended its rules to this effect at a public hearing on November 17 of this year.

A production permit would act like an insurance policy. It would enable the district to invoke its limited powers to the fullest extent possible under the law to protect our municipal water supplies and better manage the use of our aquifers. We have an opportunity here to avoid some major headaches in the future. The cities and the groundwater district need to work together now to take the necessary steps before this window of opportunity closes.

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. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.