The Texas Senate Subcommittee on the Lease of State Water Rights traveled to Marfa today, March 11, 2004, to listen to local residents' concerns about any plan that might mean the sale of underground water from their part of the state. Overall, the two hundred residents and public officials at this meeting said that at the very least, any proposal to immediately sell any water was premature.
Water sales have been an intense issue in the Big Bend, as the General Land Office (GLO) is currently considering the sale of certain water rights in the area to a private company, Rio Nuevo, for resale. This proposal was criticized by Senator Eliot Shapleigh who said that the state needed to take another look at the issue, and that one part of Texas should never be hurt in order to supply water to another. Chairman Frank Madla said that before this committee made any recommendations, there would be consultations with the Lieutenant Governor and that local residents would be given the opportunity to comment on those recommendations, that "it will be an open process, all the way to the end".
The first witness was Kathleen Hartnett White, Chairman of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, who explained the proposal to lease water rights. She said the (GLO) first proposed the lease as part of its duty to maximize revenue from state lands, much as it now leases state land for oil and gas production. Chairman White said she recognized that water was more than just another resource, that their greatest responsibility was to "preserve and protect" the resource for all Texans, and that this can directly conflict with the GLO's responsibility to maximize revenue.
She also testified that the Big Bend region was in the tenth year of a sustained drought, with livestock production down by more than half, and that "...for the state of Texas to convey groundwater to the private entity...I cannot understand why there is any rush to do this." In response to a question from Senator Shapleigh, she also said that any transfer of water would hurt property values, causing tax revenue for local schools to drop and putting an even larger overall burden on the state's taxpayers.
Janet Adams, General Manager of three west Texas Groundwater Districts, then explained what the districts have been doing to ensure the equitable distribution of water in the area. Some of those projects include metering individual wells, which she says is not done in most parts of Texas. As far as any proposal to sell water from state lands, she testified that there isn't nearly enough data to determine how badly west Texas could be hurt, and that until that data is available, her districts would oppose the plan.
Stephen Hartman, Executive Director of Land for the University of Texas, described how since 1957, the UT System has sold water from its lands to Midland as well as to a number of other governments. He said that before UT sells any water, the available resources are carefully documented to minimize any potential problems and assure the sustainability of the local water supplies. One difference between the UT method and the GLO proposals is that UT deals directly with its end users of water, rather than going through third parties. Hartman said UT operated this way because it was simply more profitable.
During public testimony, Presidio County Judge Jerry Agan testified that the elected officials were united in their opposition to current proposals to ship water across the state, saying "If you run out of oil and gas, you go somewhere else, if you run out of water, you're dead...we do not know what the long-term effects of water mining in west Texas will be."
Marfa Mayor Oscar Rice Martinez followed, saying that Rio Nuevo "handled it wrong from the start, if they wanted to buy it, they should have come to us first...this water does not belong to the General Land Office".
John Poindexter testified the Rio Nuevo plan has the potential to reverse recent economic growth in the area. He felt that the increasing population of the area showed a need for all the water that's now available and that if the GLO removes water resources the value of the state's land in the Big Bend will plummet, demonstrating that the agency is not a good steward of the land. He said while the state might make $70 million dollars in water sales, it would lose hundreds of millions of dollars in land value.
Bart Medley, a Fort Davis attorney, said "...coming to the desert for water ranks right up there with going to New York City for peace and quiet. It makes no sense." He described how the region was "at the mercy" of the local water tables for its agriculture and business. He said that before GLO decided to sell any resources, it should discover what resources it has to sell, and that this has not been done. He also criticized Rio Nuevo for not saying where the water was going. He called for a state-funded study by an impartial agency, someone other than the GLO.
The Texas Senate Subcommittee on the Lease of State Water Rights is chaired by Senator Frank Madla of San Antonio. Members include Senators Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville and Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso. The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair.