While Texas has a solid base for groundwater management, that base is cracking under the combined pressures of increasing demand and decreasing supply.
These pressures pit rural versus urban areas and landowners against each other, with groundwater conservation districts caught in the middle.
To overcome these challenges and ensure a resilient water supply, Texas leaders must improve the state’s framework for groundwater management. This means finding common ground among the various stakeholders on how best to sustain supplies.
A new report from the Environmental Defense Fund, Towards resilient groundwater management in Texas: identifying collective principles, describes five areas where there is common ground.
In late 2020 and early 2021, EDF brought together Texas stakeholders – groundwater managers, farmers and ranchers, municipal water managers, landowners, academics and technical experts, and conservation and wildlife advocates – to discuss principles that should guide groundwater management.
After a series of questionnaires, interviews and meetings, these various stakeholders came to a consensus on the following five principles.
1. Current scientific information must be accessible and understandable.
To enable efficient water management and meet diverse needs, communities need access to reliable data in a centralized, accessible and easy-to-find location.
Equally important is that this data is understandable to people who are not water experts, but whose support is needed to achieve conservation and management goals.
2. There must be a vision for resilience – and a plan to achieve it.
By bringing stakeholders together around a common vision for the future of an aquifer, groundwater conservation districts can develop comprehensive plans that evolve toward common environmental, economic and social goals. Such plans will help maintain benefits and measure results over time.
3. Groundwater management must protect those who depend on and own groundwater.
District groundwater conservation councils must represent the interests of all community members who are connected with groundwater.
Most participants preferred elected district councils, as elections would be more likely to ensure that governance is representative of – and protects the interests of – all who own and depend on this resource. Participants also recognized, however, the risk that money and politics could lead to unbalanced representation, which could possibly make a hybrid model a better solution.
4. Effective groundwater management requires a system that reflects the complexity of the problem.
Texas needs a system of groundwater governance that effectively balances both the management of local resources and the representation of local voices with the need for cohesive, aquifer-based science and policy. Some participants stressed the need for consistent rules and more tools to facilitate communication between adjacent groundwater conservation districts.
5. Continuous monitoring and feedback are essential for adaptive and innovative groundwater management.
As aquifers react to new stresses, local systems must adapt. This is only possible with a constant flow of reliable data and a system that allows – even encourages – groundwater conservation districts to adapt to the situation.
Full data sharing, easily accessible to local officials, water stakeholders and the public, can help ensure that managers make the best possible decisions.
As this consensus process demonstrates, it is imperative that Texas update its groundwater management framework to deal with growing tensions between supply and demand, and between rural and urban water users. However, state lawmakers failed to act.
By using these five principles as common ground to guide new policies, Texas can make real progress in ensuring both its groundwater resources and its regulatory framework for groundwater management are more resilient.