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Big Bend Regional Sierra Club Minutes February 20, 2001

We met at 7:00 PM in 300 Lawrence Hall on the Sul Ross Campus. About 32 people were present. Fran Sage opened the meeting with the announcement that the Executive Committee had elected Don Dowdey, chair; Fran Sage, vice chair; Jim Walker, secretary; and Ginny Campbell, treasurer. Fran retains the chairmanship of the Conservation Committee, will continue with some legislative activities, and will continue editing the Newsletter. The Radioactive Waste Committee consists of Fran Sage, Don Dowdey, and Susan Curry. In addition, Liz Hightower is chairing the Water Committee which also includes Eve Trook and Brian McMurray. Fran is pleased that we have been broadening the base of participation in our activities, noting that no organization can be successful in the long term if it is dependent on too few people.

Fran made a few remarks on our recent survey of members' interests, noting that she and Marilyn Brady will continue working on that task. Fran then turned the meeting over to Don Don Dowdey. The minutes of the December meeting were distributed and approved without change. In the absence of Treasurer Ginny Campbell, we had no treasurer's report.

Don made several announcements: (1) There will be refreshments after the meeting (donations encouraged as a fund-raising effort). (2) The Lone Star Chapter will hold a Lobbying Workshop in Austin on Sunday and Monday, Feb. 25-26 (Don will be going, and asked for anyone else interested in attending to contact him). (3) Lobby Day handouts, membership forms, and information on how to get on the Lone Star Chapter's email list will be available at front of room. (4) A packet from Karen Hayden with the SEED Coalition is available on health effects of air pollution, especially particulate matter, and power plants in West Texas.

Barbara Walker mentioned the chemical smog she and Jim had seen returning from Odessa this afternoon. Fran thought the pollution might be from the Huntsman Chemical Plant.

Bish Tweedy reported that there will be another US-Mexico Border Health Association meeting in Presidio at 10:00 AM on March 20 that will deal specifically with air quality. [Bish later learned that he was misinformed, that air quality is not on the agenda for that meeting.]

Susan Curry will collect money for T-shirts, $10.00 each, after meeting.

Program: Tom Beard, local rancher and Chair of the Far West Texas Regional Planning Group, brought us up to date on the possible features of a Brewster County Water Conservation District. Beard said he would discuss three main issues: (1) where we are in developing a Regional Water Plan; (2) what we do in the future; and (3) the formation of Water Districts, a critical issue, since Brewster has no district whereas surrounding counties do. Beard spoke forcefully against the right of capture, the principle under Texas water law that anyone may withdraw any amount of water from a well without regard to the effect on other landowners.

Three ideas seem to interfere with water regulation: (1) movement and origin of groundwater is so hidden, occult, and unpredictable as to make laws useless (from the Texas Supreme Court in the early 20th century); (2) blind following of precedent (as in the right to capture law); (3) ground water sources have extremely low natural recharge rates (whereas development is in fact mining an irreplaceable resource which will be depleted in about 50 years).

As a sixth-generation rancher, Beard said sustainability is the key. In this respect, landowners and environmentalists are the other sides of the same coin. However, not all landowners see this as yet, but they will..

Interest in a Water Plan emerged during the 1996 drought. Sen. Buster Brown, supported by Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, introduced Senate Bill 1 in 1997 to establish a Regional Water Planning Authority. Early efforts in this direction were absurd, in part, one report noting that there were "164 water wells in Brewster County." This plan was filed away and essentially disappeared from view.

The current Regional Water Plan consists of 644 pages offering 83 separate strategies to deal with possible water shortages over the next 50 years. The top-priority strategy deals with the importation of water by El Paso. An economic analysis put the cost of imported water at about $800 per year per acre-foot, which may be too low by a factor of 2. A water district near El Paso may supply water for $200-$300 per acre-foot. Beard felt that the cost of mitigating environmental effects will be enormous.

Hueco Bolson now supplies half of El Paso's water and all of Juarez's. Fresh water from this source will be depleted by 2005. Deeper water in this aquifer is salty. Desalination will then be necessary, at a cost of about $285 per acre-foot.

The Ryan Flat Aquifer near Valentine has no springs. Thus, the use of this water has been a fringe benefit to wildlife that otherwise would have no water. Depleting this aquifer will lower the water table for agricultural users in Antelope Valley, and will also deprive wildlife of their water - deer, antelope, quail, for example. As the water table gets lower, pumping becomes more expensive and eventually becomes prohibitive.

Regarding the current version of the Regional Water Plan, Beard said we must fix it, refine it, change it - get it right. We must change Texas law. The Water Planning Group has requested a $143,000 grant to study the igneous aquifer in our area, Brewster, Jeff Davis, and Presidio counties. Existing map of aquifers is inaccurate because of erratic nature of igneous aquifers; there is in fact more water than the map shows. Data are available, but not yet gathered and organized. The Ryan Aquifer in Antelope Valley also needs to be studied.

Beard said he was embarrassed by his past support for the rule of capture, first applied to wild animals in England, in the 1500s and 1600s - whoever captured a wild animal owned the animal. If we can't change right of capture, what can we do? At present under state law, water districts cannot regulate wells producing less than 25,000 gallons per day (about 17.5 gallons per minute, a fairly sizable well). We are now powerless in the face of the right of capture.

For example, years ago Limpia Creek was a "live" creek with continuous flowing water. Now, after the extensive development at Limpia Crossing, the creek runs only after a good rain. Should a large number of small wells be regulated, if each well produces less than 25,000 gallons per day? We need to seriously consider regulating such wells.

Under our existing water code, the charge for transfer or export of water outside district is limited to $55 per acre-foot. However, El Paso is considering paying $800 per acre-foot for water. The legislature is considering lowering the fees for transfer of water. Beard said the price of water should be determined by its economic and environmental cost. For example, taking the water from Ryan Flat would devastate its agriculture and wildlife; the actual cost would be far greater than $55 per acre-foot. Many people argue that water is a commodity, and its price should be determined by a free market. But such a view ignores the environmental and cultural effects. With the increase in the Texas population from 20 million to 40 million by 2050, water will become too valuable to use for agriculture, and too expensive for small communities. Can we imagine a future Texas without agriculture, without cowboys?

In 1997 the legislature mandated Regional Water Plans. In 1998 the Water Development Board turned the process over to the regions. Two years later the regions were to have their plans submitted. Ours was turned in January 5th. Within one year, the Water Development Board was to merge the 16 regional plans into a single plan. So the Water Development Board does not want us to change our plan, but our plan will in fact have to be changed, because we lacked sufficient data to formulate a good plan. For example, no one had given any thought to water management during a drought.

Our Water Plan still needs much work. Jeff Davis, Presidio, and Culberson Counties have water districts, but Brewster has none. Last session, the bill for a Brewster County water district sailed through the House, but Sen. Buster Brown killed the bill in the Senate, in the belief that counties were useless entities for water districts. However, Beard said, the people tend to trust counties more than larger, multi-county entities. Beard favors greater use of surface water, a more readily renewable resource than groundwater. Beard said there may be tradeoffs in whatever water regulations are eventually adopted.

The Texas water code allows TNRCC to establish water districts by the petition of 50 landowners. But this action must be preceded by a petition to set up a district. Beard solicited signatures on two such petitions, which many people signed after the program.

Beard then took questions from the audience. Fran Sage asked how binding a temporary plan might be if the different regions keep changing their plans. Beard said that the plan is not binding but will be used for planning purposes. What is needed is a plan that people will follow. The eighty-three strategies were put in the plan to allow for future grant funding. If there is a strategy that people want to implement that is not in the plan, they cannot request funding from the Water Board.

Susan Curry asked if the 83 strategies are prioritized. Beard said they are not prioritized because of the preliminary nature of the plan. The group chose not to prioritize, although other planning groups have prioritized.

Bish Tweedy asked about the status of El Paso withdrawals from the Rio Grande. Beard said farmers now have first rights to that water, which will escalate in cost to about $350 per acre-foot over a period of about 20 years. Distribution of Rio Grande water is controlled by the federal government. In addition, Mexico has not honored its treaty obligations of 1944 to release 350,000 acre-feet of water from the Rio Conchos to join the Rio Grande.

Brian Kokernot asked about the relationship between an aquifer and the overlying land. How does an aquifer affect the health of the region above it? Beard said there is little relationship, although in the mountains, springs often occur over fractured aquifers.

Susan Curry raised the question of an elected versus appointed board. Beard responded that the petition calls for an elected board whereas the bill in the legislature specifies a board appointed by the commissioners court. Beard said an appointed board solves the problem of finding capable people willing to run in an election. However, appointing versus electing the board might provide some room for bargaining in the legislature, room to do whatever Sen. Brown will be less likely to oppose.

Someone asked if the district will be limited to regulating 25,000 gallon-per-day wells. Beard answered yes, under present Texas law. Initially, only large wells will be covered, commercial and agricultural. But when any well is drilled, or deepened, a report must be filed, which will provide a record of information. At present, information can be withheld, but might become public if supplied to a water district. Beard said such data could be exempted from public disclosure by suitable legislation.

Someone else said that such intrusions into private lives is one of the reasons some people do not run for public office. That person went on to ask if Brewster County had tried to get a water district at the time the surrounding counties got theirs. Beard said that only in the last three or four years had it become clear that forming a water district was a desirable thing for Brewster County to do. Presidio County got its right to create a water district perhaps eight years ago, and has since created one.

Hal Flanders asked what might happen to a fractured aquifer in another earthquake, noting that we are in a seismically active area. Beard said no one knows for sure, but one well on his land collapsed in our last quake. This issue needs to be studied.

Someone asked if the water district cannot regulate wells, then what can it do with the information it collects? Beard said that monitoring water production can provide valuable information on the amount of available water, for a subdivision, for example. That is one of the most valuable functions of a water district. A water district will make it possible to request funds from TNRCC for water studies.

Bish Tweedy said he could not see why every single well in a water district should not be subject to regulation. Beard said that is because of the way the law is, and reiterated that he does not agree with the law.

Susan Curry expressed thanks to Barbara Kaufman for the excellent way she has made information available on the internet. Beard said Barbara is a treasure. He went on to say that he is again begging for money because the state will pay for the water plan, but not for the administration of the plan, even though this makes no sense. He is now sending letters to all the counties involved requesting support.

Bish Tweedy said we are all grateful to Tom Beard for all he has done. We showed our appreciation with applause.

After the program, many of us stayed to visit, to enjoy refreshments - and to deposit modest contributions to the BBRSC in a basket provided for that purpose.

Respectfully submitted,
Jim Walker, Secretary


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