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Here Come the Water Ranchers

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Lexington, Texas (population: 1,178) may become famous for something other than the best BBQ in the state. Statesman environmental reporter Asher Price has a kick-ass story on water speculators scrambling to consolidate water rights near the Central Texas town.

LEXINGTON — In a scorching cow pasture silent save the lowing of cattle, Terry Gilmore picks up a stick and draws in the sand a simple map: divots in the ground for a handful of water wells, then a long scratch for a pipeline to deliver water to Austin’s eastern flank.

About 2,000 feet below him sits an underground reservoir, known as the Simsboro formation, that he and others hope will fuel development everywhere from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Gilmore, 60, the chief investor in a water development company called Sustainable Water Resources, has spent millions of dollars to try to make his lines in the sand a brick-and-mortar reality.

Besides Gilmore, a handful of competitive water speculators are banking that the water beneath the largely rural area in Lee and surrounding counties is their crystal-clear gold. As anxieties about water supplies rise among the public and politicians, private speculators see an opportunity to tie up water rights and sell their goods to cities. But they have struggled to land big buyers.

This story, of course, is not new. Cash-rich vultures have been circling Texas aquifers for decades, hoping to turn a buck on people’s need for water.

And the coda to these stories is always the same too – I know because I’ve written it myself – namely, the sellers can’t find any buyers.

Boone Pickens has been amassing an ocean of Ogallala water but he’s yet to find a city or wholesale water supplier that’s desperate enough to meet his asking price. Same thing, mas o menos, in Central Texas.

The Brazos River Authority, which serves the area north and east of Austin, says it is open to groundwater pitches but has no need for the water now: It has water supplies of about 690,000 acre-feet a year and last year provided only 258,679 acre-feet, said its manager, Phil Ford.

He said water developers grow impatient because building a new supply “takes 20 to 30 years to develop.”

For these water ranchers, though, it’s only a matter of time. And that time may be drawing near.

Brazos Valley Water Alliance, a cooperative of landowners that hopes to market groundwater — and which includes former Gov. Mark White on its board and former Texas Water Development Board chairman Bill Madden as a marketing consultant — entered an agreement of intent in December with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which serves Kendall, Comal, Hays and Caldwell counties, among others, and San Antonio Water System to explore the sale of up to 200,000 acre-feet of water a year.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is especially pinched by supply problems. Its main source, Canyon Lake, is basically all allocated, [said] general manager Bill West.

The fundamental law of Texas groundwater, the rule of capture, could not be a stronger incentive for water privatization.The rule, upheld in several instances by that august body of reason and justice the Texas Supreme Court, essentially puts the biggest pump and the most bucks in control of groundwater.

It’s a Wild West concept that left unchecked would leave the allocation of water in the hands of private interests.

The primary check on that power are groundwater conservation districts, elected regulatory bodies created by the Texas Legislature.

In the spirit of “local control,” groundwater districts have considerable leeway to regulate the pumping of groundwater in a geographical area. Other than pure economics, groundwater districts are the main obstacle to the Lexington-area water speculators.

But the water speculators have met resistance from at least one of the groundwater districts.

“The board members from Lee County don’t want to overpermit water to leave here and leave ourselves short,” said Joe Cooper, general manager of the Lost Pines Groundwater Conservation District.

“We’re probably going to get sued from two directions some day. Either we turn someone down for a permit, and they sue us because we’ve been too scrupulous. Or one day when a well goes dry, we get sued by the landowner because we’re too free with water.”

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.