Implementing three-dimensional groundwater management in a Texas groundwater conservation district
Vol. 7 No. 1 (2016). Cover photo: Lake Austin Dam on the Colorado River, June 15, 1935. Photo CO8484, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
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Keywords

rule of capture
groundwater governance
conservation
dormant rights
collateralization
water market
cap and trade

Abstract

The Guadalupe County Groundwater Conservation District has implemented a 3-dimensional water management solution that allocates pumping rights based on actual volumes in place under a tract. This new regime treats the aquifer as a “constant level lake” where rights holders are awarded the right to a percentage of the inflow (recharge) based on the volume of saturated sands underneath their property.

Three-dimensional management can improve Texas groundwater governance by strengthening property rights, promoting conservation, and unlocking economic value by promoting water trading and collateralization. It is also cost-effective and can be rapidly implemented: the Guadalupe County Groundwater Conservation District created its initial 3-dimensional ruleset in approximately 4 months at a cost of roughly $15,000. Larger districts or districts that could not benefit from an existing property parcel map created by an appraisal district would face higher costs. Creating the type of property ownership maps used by local tax appraisal districts can cost as much as $100,000. Yet the intensive property tax regime in Texas means that even the least-populous counties typically already have such information available in digital form.

Quantifying the available water volume beneath each property and making pumping rights transferrable between wells profoundly transforms groundwater management and confers clear vested rights to water in place. As such, it can provide economic recourse to smaller water holders even in areas where municipalities and other large pumpers enter the district. In short, this forward-looking, conservation-oriented new ruleset provides a way for Texas groundwater stewards to move past flat surface acreage-based allocations and move into an era where a handful of large pumpers in a district do not erode the property rights of smaller holders. Quantifying water in place involves averaging and making certain approximations and generalizations because of the inevitably complex nature of geologic formations. Over time, groundwater conservation districts and their constituent members will determine how deeply to engage that complexity. The bottom line is that 3-dimensional management offers an exponential degree of improvement over existing Texas groundwater management models. The Guadalupe County Groundwater Conservation District’s ruleset embraces a philosophy of iterative learning and improvement and acknowledges that employing models as tools of governance always involves approximations. It handles this by including the capacity to rapidly update and revise its approach as the district obtains additional data points and insights through operational implementation of its rules.

https://doi.org/10.21423/twj.v7i1.7037
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