The Speech Series: Water

Medina Lake - Courtesy

This is the first of an occasional series of speeches on important issues and topics we’d love to see given by anyone running for governor or any other statewide office in Texas.

Most of you have probably heard the term GTT. We learned in school when we were young that those letters referred to the phrase “Gone To Texas.” People were leaving their homes in the early eighteenth century south to head west, to a state where there was a promise of opportunity. The letters “GTT” were found carved into the walls of cabins and chalked onto fences from Georgia to Kentucky and Tennessee. They had heard about Texas, and its promises of a fresh start.

That was almost two hundred years ago. And today we see the same thing happening with newcomers from around the country and the world bringing their dreams and their dollars and their energy to Texas. The future of this state has always been secured by the enterprise of its citizens and our abundance of natural resources. But we also have to accept the challenges and responsibilities that come with growth.

And there is nothing more important to the future of Texas, its citizens and their homes and lives and businesses, than water.

We live in an arid state. People moving into Texas are probably not aware that we have really only two natural lakes, Caddo Lake formed by a great log jam more than a century ago, and Green Lake, a freshwater tidal lake down near the coast. There are no glaciated lakes like those that dot the upper Midwest. Water in Texas tends to come from rivers and underground aquifers, and as our population increases, and the drought does not relent, our freshwater supplies are threatened with exhaustion. 

Medina Lake - Courtesy
Medina Lake – Courtesy

Historically, we have dealt with managing water supplies by building dams and creating reservoirs on our great rivers. These also served to prevent floods by capturing the water for future use. But now we are confronted with a troubling combination of dramatic population increase and a 100-year drought that has lowered most of the reservoirs in Texas to critical levels. Industries like tourism are suffering and water needed for manufacturing and our personal lives – is at a real risk of running out.   

And our governor’s solution has been to pray for rain. 

We, obviously, have to do more than ask for divine intervention, though a hard rain across Texas would be a great gift. Until that happens, however, let’s take an honest look at how we manage this precious resource in our state and make certain we are prepared the next time a drought lingers. First, we need to look at prevailing law. Ground water and surface water in Texas are governed by two separate standards. Ground water is subject to a law that was first promulgated with the settling of the American West; it’s called rule of capture.

What does that mean?

Where once there was water
Where once there was water

You can use all of the water you are capable of bringing up from beneath the ground on your property. In fact, if you can pump 10 million gallons a day to run your own private water park, you are well within the law. You might drain the underground supply and your neighbor’s well could dry up, but, legally, there is nothing wrong with you using a resource you have captured in a manner that you want.

While we continue to be a strong property rights state in Texas, we need to look at better methodologies for managing ground water. A landowner has legal claim to oil and gas on their property but they cannot drill into their neighbor’s land and acquire their underground energy. Why is acquiring your neighbor’s water considered reasonable when the resource is water, which, we are learning, is more precious than oil? Ground water, like surface water, is a common resource that needs to be wisely used. We can find ways to protect property rights and the water we need to live and to create the future for other generations of Texans.

Because our economy has been so strong, there was $8 billion dollars in the legislature’s Rainy Day Fund to deal with emergency issues. And what can be a bigger crisis than running out of water for our citizens? Some communities in the state have already lost their municipal supplies. But state leadership, instead of acting to appropriate that money to begin the construction of new reservoirs, decided to avoid political harm and evaded its responsibility by sending a constitutional amendment to the voters. Fortunately, the taxpayers of Texas know the severity of this crisis and approved using $2 billion of the Rainy Day Fund to create a permanent source of money for cities to apply to for assistance in building needed water facilities infrastructure.

But we have to do much, much more.

Additional money is needed for more reservoirs. We can’t completely dam up our beautiful rivers and alter the environment that makes Texas such a beautiful place. But strategic thinking about where to place new dams and create new lakes is essential. Right now our biggest lakes – like Possum Kingdom, Lake Granbury, Lake Travis, Medina, Buchanan, and many others are at record lows since they have been built and we have no long term meteorology to suggest they will fill this spring. But we’ve known this problem was coming for a long time and have failed to act. The late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock got the legislature to approve a $53 billion project in 1997 that would have funded water projects to meet the state’s increasing demands. But no one has yet to find the political will to fund the effort.

The legislature also needs to find a balance between the commercial claims on water rights of these reservoirs and the needs of the communities that helped pay for the dams, and built their economies on that dependency. Historic calls are being made on water supplies by commercial interests along the Gulf Coast that have the potential to threaten the lives and livelihood of people relying on the water in those reservoirs. The state legislature and various river authorities and claimants need to work together to determine what works best to serve the interests of all parties.

Lastly, we all also have to take some individual responsibility. If you are new to Texas, and you have moved here from a state where you had a lush green lawn, please consider that you have now arrived in the arid southwest and there might be more appropriate ways to landscape your property. We all need to use native Texas grasses and plants that have survived on minimal water but offer the natural beauty of this state. Let’s reduce regular use of lawn irrigation systems, wash our cars less frequently, and, yes, even take shorter showers. Remember that what you use now can determine if water is available for all of us in the future.

We can get through this crisis by working together and properly managing our most precious resource. And when we accomplish the goals that will help us avoid this situation in the future, we will have also set a course for even more prosperity for everyone who lives in Texas today, and who dreams of coming here and being a part of a place that continues to fire the imaginations and ambitions of people who have big dreams.