In drought-ridden Texas, the leading 2014 candidate for governor is also a leading consumer of water. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a likely replacement for Governor Rick Perry in 2014, has become the public image for a growing number of Austinites drilling wells on their property to avoid fines or massive monthly water bills.
According to the Texas Tribune, Abbott installed his well a few months before the city began enforcing its lawn-watering restrictions earlier this year. Abbott’s house is located in an upscale West Austin neighborhood where shimmering green lawns occasionally have signs stuck into them reading “Watering by Private Well” to avoid disapproving attention from well-less residents who can only water grass once a week.
Well drillers, which also include Mack Brown, the University of Texas football coach, contend that using the water under their land is a better way to tend to their landscape than using treated drinking water provided by the city. In Austin, the century-old “rule of capture” is the rule of law — meaning landowners can pump as much water as they want, even if it depletes nearby water levels, as long as the use is not deemed wasteful or malicious. Environmentalists, conservationists, and other informed Austinites worry that if enough wells are drilled the impact could be seen in precious groundwater supplies that the state relies on for future needs.
“Instead of scaling back, very wealthy customers are drilling wells on their property to water their yards in order to avoid the higher rates of the newly-introduced tiered pricing model aimed at reducing water use,” Sharlene Leurig, Senior Manager for Insurance and Water Programs at CERES and Austin resident, said earlier this year. “If enough people do this, it could undermine the security of their collective groundwater supply.”
West Austin resident Barbara Botts told local radio KUT.org that there’s a 45-foot derrick just two houses down from her home. “I believe that the aquifer belongs to everyone,” Botts said. “That when people who have the means take water out of the aquifer they are basically appropriating for themselves the water supply for all of the citizens.”
Last month water officials in Austin declared the current drought to be the worst Central Texas has ever experienced. If the situation doesn’t improve soon, the city may need to pursue options such as banning all but hand-held outdoor watering and even curtailing the use of indoor water.
On Tuesday, the Lower Colorado River Authority, which oversees Central Texas’ reservoirs, voted to withhold irrigation from downstream rice farmers for a third year in a row. The last two years the LCRA required Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the major reservoirs, to be 42 percent full if rice farmers were to draw irrigation water from them. The lakes are now at 36 percent of capacity.
Earlier this month Texans passed a major amendment to the constitution to use $2 billion to establish a water bank to finance water planning projects to meet the state’s growing demands. The proposition was championed by Rick Perry and supported by politicians across the board.
Some worry that the fund will be another way to pipe money into the hands of the usual profiteers rather than water to those in need. However everyone agrees that Texas has a water problem that can’t be ignored — especially with the state’s population expected to increase 82 percent between 2010 and 2060, growing from 25.4 million to 46.3 million people.
The Executive Summary of the 2012 State Water Plan says, “The primary message of the 2012 State Water Plan is a simple one: In serious drought conditions, Texas does not and will not have enough water to meet the needs of its people, its businesses, and its agricultural enterprises.”
Regarding the passage of the proposition, Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, said, “We’re thrilled that Texas voters have chosen to invest in Texas’ water future and protecting our rivers”:
“Texas is in a water crisis, caused by drought and made worse by wasteful water use, that has taken a serious toll on our rivers. Proposition 6 gives us a chance to chart a direction toward a more water-efficient economy that cuts water waste, maximizes conservation and protects our rivers. With this vote, Texans are entrusting the water board to spend the water fund wisely.”
If Abbott wins the governorship, he will become the leader of the new state water program. An Austin Chronicle editorial notes the unsettling news of his well drilling under these circumstances, saying, “at a time when Texas is addressing the state’s shrinking water supply by establishing a $2 billion fund to pay for reservoirs, pipelines, and — by law — conservation programs, one has to wonder how Abbott, should he become governor, would address the state’s water shortages while draining a natural water source to keep his grass green.”