The drought, population growth and natural gas exploration are contributing to calls for a groundwater conservation district (GCD) in Parker County.
Robert Mace, director of the Texas Water Development Board’s Groundwater Resources Division, told county commissioners and approximately 50 citizens Monday the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is already preparing the “priority groundwater management area” reports for the Trinity Aquifer.
Mace warned commissioners that if local government doesn’t direct its state representatives to create a groundwater conservation district, the state may do it for them, and local input on the specific powers of the district could be lost.
TCEQ can declare part of the state a “priority groundwater management area” if the state expects that area to experience groundwater supply issues within the next 25 or 30 years. After such a declaration is made, the clock starts ticking for the locals to form a district within the next two years, otherwise the state comes in and forms the district, according to Mace.
“So this is something you might want to look at because basically, the state might come in and say, ‘you really need to form a district,’” Mace told commissioners.
The Trinity Aquifer area includes Parker County and covers an area stretching from Dallas/Fort Worth all the way down through Waco.
Parker County’s state representatives, Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford) and Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), could sponsor the bill themselves and tailor the district to suit the area’s specific needs.
“This is a local issue, and if the local folks come to us asking for legislation, then it’s something Senator Estes will definitely take a look at, but it’s not something he would just introduce on his own without local support,” said Toby Baker, committee director for the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Coastal Resources, a committee which Estes chairs.
Commissioners unanimously approved a motion requesting that any GCD legislation address all users, commercial, private and oil and gas industry users. The motion also requested the oil and gas industry voluntarily look for ways to be good neighbors in the manner they use the water source and support appropriate legislation to the long-term benefit of Parker County’s population.
Should the GCD be approved by local citizens, the rule of capture, a fundamental tenant of Texas groundwater law, would become obsolete in Parker County. As the law stands now, residential and commercial water well production is not limited, regardless of the affect pumping may have on other land owners.
“If you’re pumping your well and you drain your neighbor’s well, there’s pretty much nothing he can do,” Mace explained.
The vast majority of the 89 GCDs in Texas were created by an act of the Legislature and the enacting bill may specify what the powers of the district are.
Drilling companies using water obtained through the rule of capture are drawing attention. Many area residents believe the drillers are responsible for domestic wells going dry in East Parker County, an area saturated with water and gas wells.
However, Chapter 36 of the Water Code exempts water wells permitted though the Texas Railroad Commission and wells “used solely to supply water for a rig that is actively engaged in drilling or exploration operations for an oil or gas well permitted by the Railroad Commission of Texas.”
Commissioner Jim Webster, whose district encompasses the majority of dry wells in East Parker County, has already requested Rep. King remove the energy company exemption from the Water Code.
Currently, no concrete data exists comparing the amount of water used during the fracturing procedure of gas well completion to the overall usage of all water customers in the area. A Texas Water Development Board study designed to provide such data is expected to be released by the end of the year.
“As far as the enabling legislation to set up the groundwater conservation district, you could attempt that, but that would probably have to be addressed on its own as a statewide initiative,” Baker said.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee, which Sen. Estes vice chairs, met June 28 and discussed the Chapter 36 oil and gas exploration exemption. The committee was charged with studying “the permitting exemptions in water well regulations” in Chapter 36 of the Water Code.
“I have a feeling [the energy company exemption] probably is going to be looked at this session,” Baker said, adding the research provided by the state water board’s forthcoming report could “drive the train” a little bit.
Other big water users, including legions of new subdivisions springing up in rural areas of Parker County, are taxing a groundwater supply once thought more than adequate to serve the area’s residents.
Mace provided a packed courtroom with plots and graphs indicating the status of eight Paluxy observation wells in Parker County that the state has been monitoring since 1945.
According to the water board’s numbers, aquifer levels are relatively static in much of the county. However, in all cases but one, last month’s measurements found water levels are lower than those measured last winter.
The report also noted water levels in areas with more water wells and more pumping are expected to experience greater declines.
“What these hydrographs tell me is — I guess there is some good news — is that there doesn’t appear to be any real severe declines in the aquifer regionally, but based on folks’ wells going dry that have not gone dry before, there are issues where the aquifer is not able to sustain the pumping in those local areas,” Mace said.
Several citizens from the Aledo area remain doubtful of groundwater availability in their region. None of the eight monitored wells in Parker County are located specifically in the southeast part of the county.
Mace explained the state is limited, as far as the number of wells it can monitor, by a general lack of resources. However, he pointed out sophisticated models can provide for interpolation of the data.
Mace said in areas covered by GCDs, hundreds of wells are monitored and provide the state with further data. Such an additional data source surfaced as one of the reasons behind the court’s decision to require groundwater availability certification during the platting process for new subdivisions.
County Attorney John Forest pointed out the certifications, which would require developers to drill a producing water well and complete an 18-page checklist and certify the availability of groundwater for a number of years, would be necessary for the county to move forward with plans to increase the minimum lot size for subdivisions from one acre to an acre and a half. County officials hope the move would help alleviate pressure on the aquifer.
“Without this data, you’ll never be able to prove there is a problem,” Forest said.
Throughout Monday’s meeting, audience members asked questions regarding the consequences of additional regulation of groundwater.
Hale Alderman, speaking as a private citizen rather than in his capacity as a city councilman in Willow Park, said he was not in favor of a groundwater conservation district at this time.
“The least government is the best government,” he said. “Even though TCEQ may come and say, ‘do that,’ we’ll do it then. But at this particular time, I see no need for this water conservation district in Parker County.”
Randall Peck, with Peck’s Water Well Service, said the county would probably be better off if it increased the minimum lot size in subdivisions, but noted even if the court were able to make lots a minimum of 10 acres, people would water all 10 acres and probably use just as much water.
Larry Jones, who owns a farm in Brock, asked if local government doesn’t develop Parker County’s destiny, who will.
“If Parker County was a ranch, we would impose stocking restrictions,” he said. “If we’re going to develop, we have to pay the price.”
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