When Regulation is a Texan’s Best Friend
Val Verde is a place that few Texans visit. As a result, most of us miss out on the raw beauty of our state: Val Verde is that rare jewel of a place where aquamarine water flows in the desert.
As much as 40 billion gallons a year of that water is up for sale, thanks to the efforts of Val Verde Water Company (an outfit run by John Littlejohn of Beeville, Texas, some four hours east of Val Verde). Littlejohn aspires to be the T. Boone Pickens of south Texas, and has been soliciting interest from San Angelo to Odessa. His bid to sell water to San Antonio is also among the three short-listed projects under contemplation by that city’s water system, though the final decision continues to be delayed.
This story hasn’t received much attention beyond Del Rio and some of the would-be recipients of their water. But to ignore it is a mistake. What is happening in Val Verde—the distrust and fear that erupts when a public good is treated like private property—is the universal story of water in Texas.
Nowhere is this dynamic clearer than in Val Verde, where groundwater (private property) feeds the surface water (owned by the state) of San Felipe Springs. To put a finer point on it, San Felipe Springs provides 100% of the water supply for Val Verde’s largest town, Del Rio, and its largest employer, Laughlin Air Force Base. In the ongoing drought, springs that make up part of the San Felipe system have gone dry, and the outflow of the main spring has dropped considerably.
Yet Val Verde has chosen not to adopt groundwater regulations that would allow the county to limit the amount of water that can be pumped from its primary aquifer, the Edwards-Trinity. Without a Groundwater Conservation District (GCD), any landowner can put a pump in the ground and pump to his heart’s content. The water can be sold and transported away from the county, as much as a willing buyer will take. Littlejohn has groundwater contracts in place with at least two landowners in Val Verde County, though God knows how many other marketers hold similar contracts.
Now, for years the county has debated forming a GCD—at one point legislation to establish one was submitted to the Legislature, though it never came to vote. The reasons why are various and rich with intrigue, and for the most part no one I’ve spoken to is willing to go on record with any of their theories.
What it comes down to is that no one has really gone to bat for the formation of a district. This may be changing. Earlier this month, the Border Organization, a community organizing group in Del Rio (Val Verde’s county seat) managed to win a resolution opposing groundwater exports from the City Council and Mayor. That resolution (appended below) was read by the Mayor at the San Antonio Water System board meeting on November 18.
This resolution is symbolic but entirely forceless—any groundwater contracts negotiated before formation of a district could be executed without a district in place. And any district that Val Verde may form would have to honor standing agreements made between landowners and marketers, or face a takings claim.
In the words of the Border Organization’s Sandra Fuentes (quote courtesy of the Del Rio News-Herald), “Our greatest enemy is not SAWS (the San Antonio Water System). Our greatest enemy is complacent [sic] and passivity. We believe that we can find a solution to the crisis we face, but we must be active in finding solutions. This community should have had a (groundwater conservation) district a long time ago, but we allowed those efforts to be sabotaged by the few whose interest is to profiteer from what belongs to all of us.”
The Del Rio City Council resolution:
“A resolution by the Del Rio City Council hereby expresses its strong opposition to any scheme to export large quantities of water from the region because the San Antonio Water System continues to consider a proposal to pipe water from Val Verde County while removing from consideration other proposals.”
“Whereas, research conducted by the Southwest Texas Research Institute indicates that there is no recharge of Edwards-Trinity Aquifer when rainfall drops below 80 percent of normal, and
“Whereas, several of the San Felipe Springs ceased flowing this year without the exportation of water from the aquifer, there can be no doubt that removing large amounts of water from the aquifer would have a devastating impact on the springs, and
“Whereas, water is life, and removing large amounts of water away from our aquifer represents taking away life and poses a threat to residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sustainability and growth in the Del Rio region, and
“Whereas, the San Felipe Creek is home to several environmentally threatened species and whereas, the San Felipe Springs are the sole source of drinking water for the city of Del Rio and the lifeblood of our community, and
“Whereas, communities along the Rio Grande downstream from Del Rio are dependent on the output of the San Felipe Springs, and whereas, the Rio Grande watershed is an international body of water under the 1944 treaty between the United States and Mexico… Now, therefore, be it resolved by the city council of the city of Del Rio, Texas, that the city of Del Rio hereby resolves to use every legal means necessary to prevent the mass exportation of water from our region via pipeline,” Fernandez read.
Top image borrowed from the fun little blog Life in Pecos. Bottom image is mine.