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Another Volley in Texas’ Water Wars

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The City of Laredo has joined the battle against wealthy oil and gas man Clayton “Claytie”  Williams Jr’s bid to extract 41 million gallons of water a day which the city believes could ultimately affect the Rio Grande.

Williams plan is to sell the water to Midland, according to the City of Laredo, potentially threatening water supplies downstream and further complicating the 1944 U.S.-Mexico water treaty.

You may remember Williams. He ran a good ol’ boy campaign as the Republican candidate for governor against Democrat Ann Richards in 1990. The Williams family have been longtime farmers in the Fort Stockton area. Williams Sr. is infamous for drying up the Comanche Springs because of the copious amounts of water needed for his farming operation. He won a landmark case in the ‘50s reaffirming his right to pump water under Texas’ archaic “Rule of Capture” law.

Laredo is, understandingly, serious about its protection of the Rio Grande its sole source of drinking water. “Water is life. No one is going to cut our lifeline or take away our natural resources, not from us, or anyone else along the border,” Mayor Raul Salinas said in a press release.

Under the “Rule of Capture” anyone who has a well can pump as much water as permitted regardless of the affect on his neighbors.  Williams has applied for the permit from the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District in Ft. Stockton. Currently, local groundwater districts are the only entities that can prevent someone from depleting an aquifer.

Jay Johnson-Castro, director of the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, worries that extracting water from the Edwards/Trinity aquifer zone will ultimately deplete water supplies in the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo watershed. He’d like to see a moratorium on the permit until science can prove otherwise.

“This is a major issue. The border region is one of the fastest growing regions in the United States and it deserves every drop of water that comes its way,” he says.

Johnson-Castro, and cities along the border including Laredo,  are appealing to officials at the state and federal level to put a moratorium on William’s bid to export water. The city of Fort Stockton has also passed a resolution supporting the moratorium.

Last year, Williams filed a civil suit alleging liable and slander against Fort Stockton’s Mayor Ruben Falcon. Among other things, Williams took issue with Falcon stating during a Dec. 14, 2009, commissioners meeting that Williams wanted “to roll right over several landowners by their abuse of condemnation power to condemn easements.”

According to Texas law, though, Williams has every right to pump under the rule of the capture. The devil in the details is whether he can export the water and sell it rather than use it for irrigation on his 13,000 acre alfalfa farm. This is not a minor amount of water. The amount of water that Laredo and Nuevo Laredo use equals 100 million gallons a day, while Williams wants to pump  41 million gallons a day, according to the Texas Tribune.

The privatization and marketing of water is a recurring issue that the State Legislature keeps punting to local groundwater districts. Back in 2005, some private water marketing interests had the idea of pumping water out of Kinney County, which lies on the Rio Grande, sending it downstream toward Brownsville and then piping it up to San Antonio.

The ensuing battle between water marketers and county residents was nasty and prolonged and spilled out into the Texas Legislature. As a legislative staffer in the committee where the bill was heard in 2005, I can tell you I will never forget it. It was like the Hatfield and McCoys — at times heated and ugly and it went on for days and days. Jay Johnson-Castro and his brother Tommy Castro penned a tune about the rule of capture based on that 2005 battle – it’s appropriately enough, a blues number.

That bill finally died, thank God, but the issue never will.

If Williams is allowed to export and sell his water it will open the floodgates (pun intended) for other water marketers in the state. This is a huge issue for Texas and something that is deserving of  statewide policy instead of being hashed out piecemeal by groundwater districts which don’t have the legal firepower or scientific background to grapple with such a contentious issue.

The state Legislature is going to have to muster the intestinal fortitude and a number of special sessions to tackle the “Rule of Capture.” But we all know that intestinal fortitude is something the Legislature is short on these days.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.