The politics of water ownership in Texas

By Shelby Braswell, guest columnist— Who owns groundwater rights when the water flows back and forth between delineated ownership boundaries? Is it you? Or is it someone else? 

To address that question, $500 million was appropriated to study the hydrological flow of ground water in transboundary aquifers located along U.S.-Mexico borders. Consequently, the U.S.-Mexico Transboundary Aquifer Assessment Act (of 2006) provided for hydrological research in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The cost of the study implies a tremendous political interest regarding control of groundwater.

According to W.M. Alley in a study published in 2013, “Declining water levels, deteriorating water quality and increasing use of groundwater by municipalities, industrial and agricultural water users have raised concerns of long term availability.”

In part, the research addresses the movement of water, water levels and the interactions between surface water and groundwater after heavy rainfall, extensive droughts and how water flows through varying soils. Overuse of water is a serious issue within Texas, and the ownership of that precious resource often dictates the manner in which it is used.

The study may substantially alter the legal definition of Texas water rights ownership whenever water moves in or out of its natural watercourse. With water costs rising from $750 per acre foot in 2006 to $4,500 per acre foot in 2014, one can understand the high priority this water rights issue has become for Texas landowners.

The State of Texas now controls all surface water while groundwater is controlled by the legal landowner in Texas, giving the owner the right to sell, lease or move water.

A current debate is underway in Austin to change that law, and …

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