« Return to this article

Know the West

Mixing oil and water in the Lone Star state

Why are Texans raising hell about a water deal that could raise money for their schools?


Texas is renowned as a place where fortunes have been made from the oil and gas fields, but some of the state’s biggest oil barons have also tried their hands at the water business. In 1996, Texas oil moguls Ed and Lee Bass bought up California farmland with plans to transfer farm water to San Diego. Oil and gas multimillionaire T. Boone Pickens has assembled a vast spread of land in the Texas Panhandle, with plans to sell the groundwater to San Antonio.

Now, the Texas General Land Office — which has long leased its 20.4 million acres to oil and gas companies to raise money for the state’s public schools — wants to get into the water game, too. "We can market water just like T. Boone Pickens can," says land office spokesman Jim Suydam.

But the proposal comes just as Texas is trying to clamp down on runaway groundwater use, and critics say it could spell disaster for both private landowners and the environment.

Unlike other Western states, Texas goes by the "rule of capture" — commonly known as "the rule of the biggest pump" — which allows property owners to pump unlimited amounts of groundwater out from beneath their land. Because groundwater doesn’t obey property lines, it’s common for pumpers to suck water out from under their neighbors’ land, as well. That’s an especially big concern in far West Texas, where a private company has applied to lease more than 600,000 acres of state land, which is scattered among private holdings.

"We have very little surface water," says Brewster County Judge Val Beard, who serves as the county administrator. "If you take away the (ground)water, the land out here becomes worthless, and our tax base goes with it."

Not only that, but pumping groundwater could drain springs and harm wildlife in the water-poor West Texas desert, and even in Big Bend National Park.

"An opportunity" with a hitch

The West Texas water-mining scheme is the brainchild of a group of Midland-based oil and gas executives. In 2002, they formed a company called Rio Nuevo, because they "saw an opportunity for developing water resources on lands that hadn’t been producing revenue for the state in decades," according to company spokeswoman Alexis DeLee.

Just over a month after the company was formed, it filed its application to lease more than 600,000 acres for 20 cents an acre, and pump out about 50,000 acre-feet of water (enough for between 50,000 and 100,000 families a year). Then Rio Nuevo lobbied for and won a state bill that allows the company to "float" water down the Rio Grande to potential buyers in the Rio Grande Valley.

Rio Nuevo has since backed off the Rio Grande plan. While DeLee says the company doesn’t have a customer yet, State Lands Commissioner Jerry Patterson says the water will now go to El Paso, which he calls "a community soon to have a very significant water problem." Making it work could take up to $300 million for wells, a pipeline, pump stations and water purification.

In recent years, the state has begun to put limits on groundwater use. In 1997, the state Legislature encouraged the creation of groundwater conservation districts, which can limit pumping. In 1999, the Legislature went further and called for a statewide groundwater planning process.

But Mary Kelly, with the group Environmental Defense, says, "Not all districts — particularly the new districts in far West Texas — have had the time or the resources to study aquifers, know what a safe yield might be, and put restrictions in place to protect it."

That’s a concern for neighboring landowners, but it’s also a concern for nearby Big Bend National Park, where wildlife depends on springs that could be dried up by overpumping.

"(Those springs) are absolutely critical to the health and viability of the wildlife population in the park," says Park Superintendent John King. "We just don’t think there’s enough known to be thinking about mining water."

Will big money decide?

The state’s Water Development Board is working on models that will help determine a "sustainable yield" that balances the amount of water pumped out of the aquifer with what is recharged from rainfall. But those models won’t be finished until next October. And critics like Judge Beard’s husband, Tom, who chairs the Far West Texas Regional Water Planning Group, fear that the Rio Nuevo deal could be rushed through by an overzealous state land office.

"I think the public comment has been universally against the deal," he says. "Yet Commissioner Patterson seems to be hell-bent on proceeding full-speed ahead."

"We can sign a contract with Rio Nuevo tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean a drop of water is going to El Paso," responds Patterson, who says his office will make a decision on the deal by the end of January. "They still have to go to the groundwater conservation district to get a permit to pump."

That’s not easing the heartburn in far West Texas, where locals fear that state legislators, answering to the water barons, could undermine the authority of the groundwater districts. "To be blunt," says Val Beard, "we always cringe when the Legislature goes into session."

The land office, for its part, is clearly sold on the idea of water leasing. "To be honest, (the Rio Nuevo proposal) could go down the tubes," says office spokesman Suydam. "But overall, the idea of using state lands to sell water is a new direction we want to go in."

The author is an assistant editor for High Country News.

Texas General Land Office 512-463-5001, glo.state.tx.us/events/water.html

For a good overview of sustainable water management efforts in Texas, visit www.texaswatermatters.org, sponsored by Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.