Page 16


READ about the Rule of Capture L, in Texas at r The idea to export water from a desert is just insane. READ the Midland Reporter-Telegram story about Clayton Williams at OLDER SHOWERHEADS CAN USE AS MUCH AS 5.5 GALLONS PER MINUTE, WHILE A STANDARD SHOWERHEAD PURCHASED TODAY WILL SAVE CUSTOMERS THREE GALLONS PER MINUTE. A SLOW DRIP CAN WASTE AS MUCH AS 170 GALLONS OF WATER EACH DAY, OR 5,000 GALLONS PER MONTH. cancelled because there was not enough water. Earlier that year, 52 irrigation wells had been drilled 10 miles west of Fort Stockton on land owned by Clayton Williams Sr., his brother J.C. Williams, and several others. The wells were equipped with pumps powered by diesel engines to draw water from deep below the surface. They worked so efficiently that the flow of Comanche Springs slowed to a trickle within hours after the pumps started. The farmers east of town ran dry, but landowners west of town expressed no remorse. Under The Rule, they could have all the water they could pump because they owned the ground above it. Geologists and hydrologists determined that Comanche Springs was fed by rainfall in the Glass Mountains, some 50 miles southwest of Fort Stockton. The rainfall drains through braided channels coursing through limestone deep below the surface before bubbling up as springs east of town. The wells drilled west of town intercepted that underground flow. The Pecos County Water Control and Improvement District Number One filed suit in Texas courts on behalf of the 108 farming families it supplied with water, challenging the prodigious pumping by the new farmers. On June 21, 1954, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals ruled in favor of Clayton Williams, et al. by upholding The Rule of Capture, agreeingwith the landmark1904 Texas Supreme Court decision that groundwater was too mysterious to regulate. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the decision. Sadly, a half century later, the courts and the legal system still embrace the mysterious, secret and occult. The Rule rules. CLAYTON WILLIAMS’ SON, Clayton Jr., may have learned to swim in Comanche Springs, but when it came to pumping water, business was business. He followed in his father’s footsteps by continuing to pump groundwater to irrigate crops on the high Chihuahuan Desert. When Williams unsuccessfully ran for governor of Texas in 1990, Jan Jarboe of Texas Monthly asked if he thought Comanche Springs could flow again if he stopped pumping 41 million gallons of groundwater daily. “They might,” he reckoned. “But I’m not going to do it. It’s my land, and I have the right to use the water….I’m a businessman. I’m a cow man. I’m a conservationist. I didn’t dry up those springs. I bought the land. It’s mine, and if I didn’t pump water, it wouldn’t be worth anything.” Now Williams wants to repurpose his rights from farming to municipal use in order to pipe water to Midland, though the city hasn’t shown any interest. He also wants to pump it to the proposed NowGen experimental “clean” coal power plant in Penwell, in which Williams is an investor. A 100-mile pipeline would be constructed by Williams’ Fort Stockton Land Holdings through private property seized through the use of eminent domain. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District has scheduled two hearings for Williams’ application for late September and early October. Williams believes the pipeline is a win-win deal, as he related to the Midland Reporter-Telegram in March: “I went to Fort Stockton and told them I’d build a reverse-osmosis plant, process their water at cost, and pay $2.35 million in property taxes to the school and $1.45 million to the county. I’m only paying $20,000 now, so that’s a big bump. It would be more economic benefits and high-paying jobs. To me, it’s not complicated. We live in the box of law.” Former Speaker of the House Tom Craddick tried to help Williams by introducing House Bill 4805 in April 2009 to create the West Texas Water Supply District on 20 acres near the Midland International Airport. The district was designed to give Williams his own private government agency to capture and sell his water. The bill was greeted with loud howls of disapproval in Fort Stockton. “This is not in the best interest of Pecos County,” County Judge Joe Shuster testified to the House Natural Resource Committee. “There’s not been an independent study of groundwater in Pecos County. It’s disingenuous to say that this amount of water [extraction] would be safe for all parties.” The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Laredo’s mayor, and the eight-county Rio Grande Regional Water Planning Group have called for a moratorium on Williams’ permit request until studies on groundwater flows, including water from the Pecos River watershed, and their impact on the Rio Grande are complete. House Bill 4805 died in committee, but the fight is not over. “It will be back before the Legislature in 2011, probably in a timelier manner and with more organized support,” says state Sen. Carlos Uresti, a San Antonio Democrat whose district includes West Texas. “Those of us who are committed to protecting the water must be vigilant during the interim, during the next session of the Legislature and the sessions after that.” WE’VE LEARNED A LOT over the past 150 years, and what happens to groundwater is no longer mysterious or occult. In the Panhandle, scientists have studied the drawdown of the Ogallala Aquifer, the vast reservoir of groundwater that extends from Texas up the spine of the Midwest into Canada. The Ogallala provided abundant sustenance for farm crops in the region for more than 150 years. But so much water has been pumped out that no amount of rain can refill the aquifer to levels of 150 years ago. Less than half of the aquifer’s capacity remains, and what’s left costs more to pump, making irrigated farming in the Great Plains a risky proposition. That didn’t stop T. Boone Pickens from trying to exploit the Ogallala. In the early 2000s, he made deals with neighboring landowners around Roberts County to form Mesa Water Inc., which would pump Ogallala water and ship it via pipeline to Dallas, or wherever the highest bidder happened to be. He couldn’t have done it without The Rule. Pickens has not yet found a buyer willing to pay his price for water, or built a pipeline to deliver the water, but he nonetheless felt compelled to accuse three northwest Texas groundwater districts of trying to ruin his business. The three are among the 98 groundwater districts in Texas, which by law must have plans to assure a water supply that will last 50 years. Groundwater districts were reaffirmed as the preferred means of local control with the passage of Senate Bill 1 in 1997. 12 1 THE TEXAS OBSERVER WWW.TEXASOBSERVER.ORG