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Doug Shaw: “More wells were drilled in Parker County than in any other county in the state." Photo by Jeff Prince.

Some North Texans steamed while discussing water recently. Life itself depends upon water, and suspicions and frustrations can boil over whenever such a valuable commodity becomes more scarce and expensive. The water found in underground aquifers around North Texas is limited, diminishing, and becoming more regulated. Last Friday, a public hearing in Weatherford drew a wide mix of people with straws in the proverbial drink – landowners, housing and commercial developers, homeowners, Realtors, water well diggers, environmentalists, and elected officials. Some liked what they heard. Those that didn’t made sure to voice their concerns to the hearing’s host, Doug Shaw, general manager of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, which oversees four counties to our west, including Parker County.

The district was established 10 years ago after the Texas Water Development Board noticed various counties in our part of the state were experiencing or were expected to experience groundwater shortages in the coming years. The district is empowered to develop rules to protect existing water wells, prevent waste, promote conservation, and set up a framework that provides groundwater for future generations.

Sounds easy enough.

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Think again.

Shaw and his district cohorts are hosting a series of public hearings in Hood, Montague, Parker, and Wise counties, where they are viewed as either heroes, annoying bureaucrats, or overreaching villains. If you have already established a home with a water well, you’re probably happy that somebody is trying to protect the groundwater supplies and making sure your faucet never runs dry, but current homeowners aren’t the only ones to consider in an area exploding with growth.

An estimated 25,000 water wells currently exist in Parker County.

“More wells were drilled in Parker County [in recent years] than in any other county in the state – about 625 wells a year,” Shaw said. 

Water wells for family residences must be drilled on a minimum of two acres. Shaw’s group, however, wants to more than double the minimum acreage required to five. The thinking is, the fewer straws that tap into the aquifer, the longer the groundwater will last. 

Requiring five acres won’t please everyone. Large property owners and developers stand to lose profits (or, at least, accrue higher costs that must be passed along to buyers). Under the five-acre rule, a 100-acre pasture would yield 20 new homes with private wells rather than 50.

About two-dozen people sat on hard chairs at long tables and faced Shaw, who relied on a PowerPoint display to explain the district’s concerns about groundwater supplies. A couple of the district’s board members and an attorney sat at a small table up front near Shaw, and they chimed in to answer questions at times. Mostly older white folks made up the crowd, with several of them wearing cowboys hats. Some said the district is merely guessing what’s going to happen 50 to 100 years from now with our aquifers but making real-life current-day decisions that are impacting people unfairly today. Some complained that the district is pushing developers to use surface water but doing little to create surface systems. Several wondered aloud whether the public hearing was a dog-and-pony show and if Shaw and the district had already made up their minds about the five acres. Nobody yelled or cursed, but most in the crowd spoke with a dead-serious demeanor about how the district was passing rules that greatly impacted their pocket books rather than developing strategies that didn’t involve “throwing money at it.”

Parker County Commissioner George Conley listened to the debate with interest. He is serving his third term as commissioner but worked for 30 years as a water well driller in the county. When he first started his well business, he recalls people fretting that the aquifers would run dry and leave homeowners, ranchers, and businesses without water. It never happened. He recalls the negative reaction after the newly created district in 2009 raised the minimum acreage for water wells from one to two acres.

“All my water well buddies are on me about this five-acre deal,” Conley told us before the hearing began. “The developers don’t want the five acres. They raised Cain when it went to two acres.”

Parker County’s groundwater supplies are greater than in the district’s other three counties, Conley said, and should have its own set of rules. He isn’t impressed by all of the district’s reports and studies.

“They are using data from engineers,” he said. “Engineer stuff sounds good on paper, but it’s not always the way it is.”

The discontent isn’t as common in Tarrant County, where most residents rely on surface water. The aquifers underneath Tarrant County are deeper and more costly to access, while lakes and pipeline systems are plentiful. But in Parker County, the aquifers are only half as deep and much cheaper to dig. Surface water systems aren’t as plentiful, particularly in rural areas, so people keep digging wells. And the groundwater in North Texas continues to decline faster than in other parts of the state, according to Shaw.

Don’t count on your local municipality or elected official to totally buy into what the district is selling. Officials on the city and county level tend to encourage development that generates more tax revenues to spend. That leaves the conservation district’s Shaw as the guy laying down the law.

“We know that [groundwater] is a depleting, declining resource, and that’s why groundwater districts exist – to ensure our kids and grandkids and their kids have water,” he said.

Who can argue with that? Well, lots of people, particularly those who will earn more money if rules remain the same.

1 COMMENT

  1. As a water rights and environmental attorney who has watched the UTGCD from its inception, in my opinion I encourage water users to challenge every fact about groundwater the district alleges. George Conley is right-the doom and gloom about the future condition of the aquifers have been wrong. We don’t have to guess about this. The point of beginning is that, under Texas law, groundwater is privately owned property and if the government prevents a landowner from accessing his or her property, that is a constitutional taking of property that must be compensated. Unfortunately, our state government has abdicated its role in figuring out a constitutionally compliant groundwater regulation scheme, pushing it onto groundwater districts such as the UTGCD, and those negatively affected by its rules and regulations. As such, it appears our groundwater regulations will ultimately be decided in the courts.

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