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Bush School Conference Explores the Complexities of Texas Water Policy

April 15, 2018

The April 5-6, 2018, Rethinking Texas Water Policy conference drew about 40 speakers and 240 participants to Texas A&M University for two days of educational presentations addressing the legal, scientific, and political complexities of groundwater and surface water policy in Texas. The conference was the brainchild of Bush School professor James Griffin and was hosted by the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics, and Public Policy and the Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Day 1: Understanding the Complexities of Groundwater

On the first day of the Rethinking Texas Water Policy conference, Dr. James Griffin, Senior Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, welcomed participants and challenged them to think long-term and “big picture” about Texas water policy, well beyond the next legislative session and Texas Water Code tweaking. He further urged them not to throw out ideas they deemed politically unfeasible.

Understanding the Legal Complexities – Participants were first treated to a legal panel moderated by Austin water attorney Ed McCarthy. The panel included Texas Supreme Court Justice James Blacklock, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch, and former Texas Court of Appeals Justice Jan Patterson. The panelists discussed the lack of legal precedent as a challenge to ruling on water policy cases before moving into a conversation about the similarities and differences between groundwater and oil, another key natural resource in Texas.

Understanding the Science: Texas’ Major Aquifers & Hydrologic Characteristics – The second panel was moderated by John Tracy, Director of the Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M, and included Larry French of the Texas Water Development Board, hydrologist Bob Harden, and Greg Stanton of the Texas Water Science Center.  The panel’s focus revolved chiefly around the issues of artesian pressure and aquifer storage. The panelists discussed how pressure and storage were not necessarily directly correlated, as in East Texas where reduced pressure is a concern but storage has not depleted. One point of emphasis was the challenge of making rules that consistently describe aquifers when each one is different.

Texas Water History – During the lunch hour, Dr. Charles Porter of St. Edwards University gave a talk about the history of water policy in Texas, beginning with over 180 years of surface water as the dominant concern of regulators before groundwater rose to greater prominence in the current era.

Understanding the Economics – Carlos Rubenstein, former Chairman of the Texas Water Development Board and former Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, moderated the economics panel consisting of economists James Griffin of the Bush School and Ryan Williams of Texas Tech University.  The topics of conversation centered on some common misconceptions about groundwater and reiterated that loss in artesian pressure is not the same as a loss in storage. A few suggestions for solutions to groundwater scarcity issues followed, including Correlative Rights to limit landowners to a reasonable share of a common source of groundwater, a mitigation fund to protect land owners, and the idea of groundwater bank accounts.

Limitations on Sharing the Resource –The next panel included Kathleen Jackson of the Water Development Board, Sarah Schlessinger of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, John Durand representing Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, and public strategist John Hockenyos of TXP, Inc., and was moderated by government relations consultant Marc Rodriguez. They considered the issues of the earlier panels and their implications for water policy. The participants discussed the economic importance of water and the nearly impossible balancing act that local Groundwater Conservation Districts must perform to responsibly serve both landowners and the environment.

Understanding the Political Constraints –The final panel of the day convened Texas State Representatives Tracy King and Four Price; former State Senator Buster Brown; and moderator, Texas A&M University water law and management professor Ron Kaiser.  The experts shared their insight into the political nuances of water policy. As the legislators spoke, they described the division on water policy as often a result of conflict between urban and rural interests and predicted that despite increasing disagreement over water policy, there would be more legislation on groundwater in the near future.

Day one of the conference concluded with a reception in the lobby of the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center, where attendees were able to discuss the content of the day’s panels and follow up with speakers about specific concerns and questions prompted by the presentations made during that day’s groundwater panels.

Day 2: Understanding the Complexities of Surface Water

The second day of the Rethinking Texas Water Policy conference began with a welcome from Dr. Lori Taylor, Director of the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics and Public Policy, who introduced the first speaker of the morning, former Texas State Senator and current Senior Advisor for Fiscal Matters at the Office of the Governor, Tommy Williams. Senator Williams observed that water resources are crucial for job growth, which he identified as the number one priority for the state. Senator Williams also praised the work of the Texas Water Development Board and SWIFT before transitioning into the first panel of the morning.

Understanding the Legal Complexities of Surface Water – Todd Votteler, Editor-in-Chief of the Texas Water Journal, moderated a legal panel consisting of Toby Baker, Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; Doug Caroom of Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta LLP; and Kevin Ward of the Trinity River Authority of Texas. The panelists discussed the laws relating to ownership and use of surface water. Most surface water in Texas is owned by the state, with use determined by junior and senior water rights, referred to as the prior appropriations system, which grants higher priority usage to whoever has owned a right to water for a longer period of time. This system is not perfect and can cause problems during shortages.

Understanding the Science – Next attendees gathered for another panel to illuminate some of the scientific issues surrounding surface water. Robert Brandes moderated the panel consisting of William Espey of LJA Engineering, Inc.; Larry McKinney of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi; and Ralph Wurbs, senior professor at the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University. Topics in this panel touched on water storage in reservoirs and estuaries, which contribute to environmental sustainability. The panelists also explained how water can be redirected to replenish wetlands and other coastal buffers, which protect against droughts, and discussed the development of water availability models (WAMs) for preparing and evaluating water right permit applications.

Legal Impediments to Conjunctive Water Use: Experience from Other States –Dr. Burke Griggs, law professor at Washburn University in Kansas, entertained conference attendees over lunch with a humorous but thoughtful exploration of the historical conflict over water between Kansas and Nebraska. The talk emphasized conjunctive use, but conceded that many assumptions about conjunctive use are unrealistic and some impediments can be good because they protect property rights.

Understanding the Economics – Gabe Collins of the Baker Institute at Rice University moderated the afternoon economics panel, which included Sharlene Leurig of the Texas Environmental Flows Initiative; Carlos Rubenstein, former Chairman of the Texas Water Development Board and former Commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and Maria Vaca, 2017 Bush School graduate and water capstone participant.  The experts shared their thoughts on converting water rights, keeping transportation costs low, and using fees to moderate use in years of both surpluses and shortfalls. Examples included the Rio Grande water market, sustainability practices in Austin, and the theoretical use of a water conservation fee.

Understanding the Politics – In the final panel of the conference, Commissioner Toby Baker of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality moderated a dialogue with Texas State Representatives Poncho Nevarez and Dade Phelan. The politicians discussed the tension in the legislature surrounding surface water, reiterating the urban/rural divide from the previous day and the challenges of balancing human use with environmental need, particularly regarding reservoir construction. As the panel concluded, one representative summed up his talk with one sentence that was well-received by the audience: “Everything to do with water is maddeningly frustrating.”

For the closing remarks of the conference, Texas State Comptroller Glenn Hegar summarized the highlights from the two days. Comptroller Hegar predicted that water would remain a prominent issue as Texas continues to grow. He echoed other speakers from the event, emphasizing how the complexity of water issues can make it hard to remove emotions and have a conversation about what is best for the most people. Ultimately, Hegar encouraged the audience to think about how to arrive at outcomes with winners on all sides, rather than winners and losers.

The Bush School and Mosbacher Institute are grateful to all the speakers, sponsors, and participants for sharing their thoughts and ideas during two riveting days Rethinking Texas Water Policy.

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