The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has suspended most water rights along the upper San Saba River, where water use has become increasingly contentious as the state's drought has continued.
In Texas, because surface water belongs to the state, rights must be purchased to use the water for irrigation purposes. Those rights are prioritized based on the date each one was granted. However, according to state law, those who do not have water rights but require the water for domestic or livestock use trump the most senior water rights.
Two such domestic and livestock users made calls to TCEQ in mid-August requesting that water be restricted upstream to allow flows to return to their property. On Aug. 26, TCEQ Executive Director Zak Covar issued an order suspending water use with a priority date more recent than 1900.
The order pertains to roughly 80 rights holders, both individuals and organizations, most of whom live in Menard County. A small number of rights holders in McCulloch and Schleicher counties are also affected.
Water use in Menard has been under scrutiny since American Rivers, a national conservation group, cited the town's water management in including the San Saba on its national list of endangered rivers. It was the only Texas entry.
Also, during the regular session, state Rep. J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville, filed a bill that would have called for a watermaster to monitor water use in the area. After intense pushback, Sheffield opted not to push the bill. “We found it to be a very volatile issue with a lot of history,” he told the Tribune in July. “We would need a lot of time to look into it thoroughly, and we didn’t have it.”
This is not the first time water rights have been suspended in the area. In early August, Susan Wheless, a Menard resident who is among those affected by the new order, wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper recalling the ramifications of similar restrictions applied in 2011 in response to a priority call downstream.
"I had to sell my stock at a huge loss, since I had nothing for them to eat," she wrote. "It cost me more than twice as much to replace what I had sold, all because someone is unhappy about a drought that none of us has any control over."
This year, Wheless is the president of the Menard Irrigation Company, which is made up of local shareholders and manages an irrigation canal that diverts water from the San Saba and winds through the center of Menard. The company is also subject to the suspension order, and Menard residents told the Tribune that the diversion point for "the ditch," as it is often called, was being cut off on Friday.
The TCEQ will hold a hearing on Oct. 9 to determine whether to "affirm, modify, or set aside" the suspension order.