Texas House Speaker Pete Laney recalled at a water planning seminar in Lubbock that 100 years ago state citizens were “carrying guns and fighting over water. And we have made it legal for you to carry guns again.”

But he hopes to avoid water wars, which would pit rural interests against urban and agriculture against industry instead of rancher against rancher.

Maintaining local control through water management districts offers the best possibility for protecting individual property rights and securing water for future generations, according to a panel of “stakeholders” included in the forum on the Texas Tech University campus.

But, depending on location, availability or scarcity of water, and specific interest, local control plays out in different ways.

Katie Hoskins spoke from a regional groundwater conservation district perspective. Susan Butler addressed issues concerning needs of a large municipality. Steve Stevens spoke from a private company viewpoint. Ken Kramer provided an environmentalist's perception, and Steve Verett presented a farmer's view.

Hoskin's approach comes from her work as general manager of the Culberson County Groundwater Conservation District and as a partner with her husband, a seventh generation rancher.

“We live in the Trans Pecos region,” Hoskins said, “where 13 of the last 15 years have been classified as droughts.”

She said managing the limited water resources in the area depends on local control, from folks who understand the limitations of the four minor aquifers and the needs of the communities.

“Our goal is twofold,” she said. “We want to protect groundwater and we want to protect property rights. Sometimes the two goals will conflict, but we need a balance.”

Local input is the best way to assure that equilibrium, she added. “We have to consider the present and the future, but we also must learn from the past. The first water treaty involved two cities in Mesopotamia, in 3100 BC. They broke the treaty and the cities were decimated.”

She said water in a free market will “flow uphill toward money. That scenario eliminates agricultural irrigation as a player. Similar systems occur in 34 countries, only two of which, South Africa and Syria, are capable of feeding themselves.”

Others, she said, presume they can always find enough affordable grain to feed themselves. “That's a shaky assumption.”

She said the United States provides “the safest and cheapest food supply in the world. But it's so inexpensive, consumers have become complacent about the need for agricultural irrigation.”

Hoskins related that Culberson County boasts 17 farms and agriculture is the “largest private employer in the county. Still, we must balance agriculture's needs with others.

“Wildlife, for instance, provides considerable economic stimulus. In mule deer season, hunting pumps $600,000 into the economy of just one town.”

She said improved water management through the years has brought wildlife into the area. “Reports from early explorers and pioneer settlers indicated no wildlife here,” she said.

“Ranchers have developed water resources and attracted wildlife.”

She said the Texas legislature must “provide tools to protect water resources. And we need the science to know how to regulate our resources fairly.”

Stevens, a consultant for Mesa water, is a “firm believer in private property rights. A landowner should be able to market his water as he sees fit. Sustainability of the resource should be left up to water district management, but to force sustainability on the High Plains would exact a devastating blow to the economy.”

Stevens said water marketing could be accomplished with pipelines that move water from areas of surplus to areas of need, including municipalities, which could treat water and then transport treated, high quality water to rural areas.

Ken Kramer, executive director of the Lone Star Sierra Club, disagrees with the assumption that sustainability has no place in High Plains water management and he's wary of unrestricted water marketing.

“Sustainability is essential for the long-term viability of the Ogalalla aquifer and the economy,” he said. “Sustainability goals may differ within each water management district. The Edwards, for example, recharges every year, but in the High Plains, sustainability provides more challenges.”

He concurs that limiting water use in the High Plains cannot be accomplished overnight without severe economic hardship.

“But, a more long-term solution to sustainability, including conservation and agricultural research, makes sense. Underground water districts have done a good job of conservation, but they may have to look at more efficient ways to irrigate, alternate crops or enterprises other than agriculture in some cases.

“Continuing to mine the aquifer is not wise,” he said.

He said water marketing and water transfers should be part of the mix in a water management plan for the state. “But we have to look at these options from a balanced perspective.”

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs said long-term sales contracts for water markets could leave local residents without adequate water reserves. “We have to protect the home base,” she said.

Kramer said a farm heritage helps him balance environmental and agricultural needs in policy discussions. “We emphasize the growing commonalities between agricultural and environmental interests,” he said. “We must work together to meet the state's needs as the population doubles in the next 50 years.”

Butler, director of resources for the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) said a region with 1.5 million people places a heavy demand on water supplies. “Also, this area is a hotbed for endangered species, so we've had to cut back on water use.”

Maintaining adequate supplies depends on leasing water rights from landowners and implementing strong conservation measures, she said.

“We're buying and leasing Edwards aquifer water rights,” she said. “In some cases, farmers use funds from water rights leases to increase irrigation efficiency.”

Conservation also gets a boost from 35,000-acre feet of recycled water for specific uses. “It's non-potable water,” Butler said.

Also, SAWS had achieved a 30 percent per capita reduction in water consumption since 1984, from 213 gallons per day to 144 gallons. “Our goal is 140 gallons per day by 2008,” she said.

Butler said San Antonio would spend more than $500 million in the next five years to improve water supplies. In the next 50 years, expenditures will exceed $3 billion.

Verett, executive director of the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., said water management is one of many challenges farmers face in the High Plains.

“Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, which is the catalyst for the area economy,” Verett said. “Agriculture accounts for 30 percent of the region's economy. We produce more than 20 percent of the nation's cotton as well as substantial amounts of grain sorghum, corn, wheat, cattle and peanuts.”

The future of that production, as well as wildlife management, depends on “how we manage our natural resources.”

Future economic entities likely will include traditional row crops, wildlife, livestock and tourism, he said.

Verett emphasized the importance of maintaining a viable agriculture. “Safety and security of our food and fiber supply has taken on a new urgency since September 11,” he said. “Agricultural production is strategic to national security. Consumers must realize that being the lowest cost producer may not be in their best interest.”

Verett said farmers must look “at every opportunity to manage resources. But farmers have been suspicious of the word ‘sustainable.’ It now has to mean sustaining resources and profitability, and we must have research to help us accomplish that. Fortunately, we have some of the best research services in the area with Texas Tech and Texas A&M facilities as well as USDA-ARS. We have talented people in the area who will provide solutions.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com