“And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,

‘I don't care where the water goes if it doesn't get into the wine.’”
G.K. Chesterton

Easy for Noah to say, since too little water was not high on his list of things to worry about.

But for folks in the more arid regions of the Southwest, water ranks as the No. 1 factor limiting agricultural production, industrial manufacturing, wildlife protection, and the very survival of many rural communities.

“Everyone in the state has a stake in water management,” says Susan Combs, Texas Commissioner of Agriculture.

Combs, along with Texas state legislators, businessmen, water management district representatives and agricultural association spokesmen, gathered at Texas Tech University in Lubbock recently to discuss current and future water needs and various methods of assuring adequate supplies to a population expected to more than double by mid-century.

Organizers of the event anticipated good attendance; they didn't expect the standing room only audience that crowded into the Texas Tech International Cultural Center.

The turnout underscores a change of heart among High Plains residents, said John Abernathy, Dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech. “A lot of people have been complacent about water issues,” Abernathy said, “but this response emphasizes the interest in water.”

He said the goal of the forum was to bring together people with differing viewpoints and initiate a dialogue to explore as many options as possible. “Communication is critical,” he said. “We need to learn what other people think and make plans for water use in the region.”

Pete Laney, speaker of the House in the Texas legislature, said water use planning has become a critical issue. “Just a few years ago, water planning meant asking where we would put the next well. But with a state as large and diverse as Texas, a one — size-fits all approach to water management doesn't work.”

Laney also emphasized that water management strategy should come from local interests up to state government. “It's imperative that water plans come to Austin and not from Austin,” he said.

The critical nature of the task becomes clear, Laney said, by projecting population growth into 2050. “In a few years, the current 20 million population of Texas will increase by another 20 million. Another 20 million will come after that. It's our responsibility to assure that future generations have adequate water in all parts of the state.”

The challenge takes on added import because of the continued decline of the Ogalalla Aquifer, a water resource reaching from near Midland, Texas, to the southern tip of South Dakota. More than 74 Texas counties draw from the aquifer.

“Agriculture and Texas are totally dependent on water,” Combs said. She said a battle royal over water rights would serve no one well. “We can't afford a win/lose situation,” she said.

“All economic activity follows water. That's why it's important that all concerned parties participate in water management planning. If you're not at the water table, you'll be left out of the debate.”

Combs and other speakers said public water needs must be balanced against individual property rights. “We follow ‘the rule of capture,’” she said, “which allows a landowner to capture and use the water under his property.”

She said retaining an individual landowner's water rights would be a key element in management plans, but those rights also should be balanced against neighbors' rights and future needs.

Combs said Santa Fe, N.M., has established rigid water conservation measures that Texas hopes to avoid. “In subdivisions, lawns can be no more than 800 square feet and must be watered by captured rainfall or gray water (recycled water from household use). Regulations require low-flush toilets and prohibit swimming pools. Even kiddy pools have strict size limitations,” she said.

“The consequence of not being thoughtful with water use will be that kind of restrictive regulation. Water affects everything we eat or wear daily, and bad decisions we make today will costs us for a long time.”

Bo Brown, an attorney who chairs the Region O Water Planning Committee, said legislation enacted since 1996 has created a system to plan and implement water management strategies. SB1 and SB2, he said, were designed to protect agriculture and natural resources.

A key factor in the legislation was creation of 16 water-planning districts answerable to the Texas Water Development Board. All 16 districts have submitted plans for long-term water management.

Brown said short-term goals in those plans include: new sources of water, brush control, precipitation enhancement, conservation, and research for drought-tolerant crops.

Local control, he said, is a critical part of the overall strategy. “SB1 established local control and management of water resources,” he said, “and came from bottom up (originating at the local level and moving up to the state) planning. The first draft of SB2 recognized concerns, including local control, and also thwarts the goals of some parties that would restrict the bottom up planning process. The rule of capture is retained. But we have a continuous challenge to retain private ownership of water.”

He said replacing volunteer public members of water districts with municipal and other policy makers would result in elimination of the rule of capture in favor of something like resource pooling.

Brown said sustainability of the Ogalalla Aquifer also concerns some parties. Sustainability, however, would result in a severe economic hardship to the High Plains. Speakers admitted that the aquifer has been “mined” for 60 years. During that time crop production flourished. The aquifer has declined considerably, however.

A long-range water management plan, Brown said, “will prolong the life of the aquifer without rationing or other harsh restraints. In a drought, crops need water and restrictions could result in significant economic hardships for the region. Agriculture depends on the Ogalalla.”

Brown applauded the 16 water districts for the “excellent job of adhering to SB1 requirements. But we have to be proactive to maintain local control.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com