With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Stacey Steinbach is the executive director of the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, a 501(c)3 trade association of groundwater conservation districts in the state of Texas. TAGD counts about 84 groundwater conservation district members and a couple dozen groundwater consultants, lawyers, hydrogeologists, members of the public and some water providers, too. The group's purpose is to support groundwater conservation districts.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: It seems that a growing issue is the rise in importance of rural area groundwater districts. Big cities are looking further and further afield for groundwater resources. Do you think these rural areas and the groundwater conservation districts in them have enough protection?
Stacey Steinbach: You’re saying, do they have enough protection from, say, water marketers or transporting water?
Trib+Water: I would say yes…
Steinbach: Yeah, I think so. I think that’s the role of the groundwater conservation district. Right now, the groundwater conservation districts don’t treat transporters any different than any other user of the water. What they’re charged with doing is finding balance, insuring that that new water use or that new permit isn’t going to impact current users, isn’t going to impact their DFC, or desired future condition, which is something they plan for on a regional basis. I think GCD’s are in a position to weigh that. Now, in areas where there’s not a GCD, when an outside water source comes in, then there’s no way to measure or gauge the impacts of that new water use on current users without a GCD.
Trib+Water: If you had the opportunity to advocate for changes to bolster protections for groundwater conservation districts, what would you be advocating for?
Steinbach: I don’t think that we’re going to be advocating, for — I think the word you used was “protection.” I think that TAGD right now as an organization is focused on working with water users, on getting some consensus on legislation on issues like brackish groundwater, long term permitting, aquifer storage and recovery and well limit enforcement, which is a big one, too, especially in these rural communities where you might not have as many licensed well drillers in the community. And so ensuring that you don’t have impacts to the aquifer based on unsound drilling practices. Oil and gas and groundwater and hydraulic fracturing specifically and whether or not districts should permit that use. We’re not working as an organization on other types of legislation outside of those things.
Trib+Water: Taking the inverse of that, is there anything lurking out there that y’all need to play defense on? Is there any kind of bad legislation lurking out there you need to kill?
Steinbach: I think the really good thing about this upcoming session is that through the Texas Alliance for Groundwater Districts, through the Texas Water Conservation Association, through the Texas Desalination Association, we’re all working together already on language for bills. My hope is there will be no surprises and that folks won’t be playing defense. I’m optimistic that we’re going to get some consensus language because I think everybody realizes and believes there’s a need for some clarity in some of these areas.
It’s kind of like last session, a lot of parties felt like they were playing defense. There were more questions than answers last session. But, now, we had that session out there, a lot of bills died. There were tons of bills that were introduced. New we’re taking all that stuff and working together as opposed to waiting until session starts and then panicking and trying to craft a huge bill based on brackish groundwater all over the state in the middle of session, which, as we know, is very challenging.
Trib+Water: There’s a long term trend of rural areas not having as much clout in the Legislature, a lot of experienced rural legislators leaving or rural areas losing representation because of redistricting. We have a couple of pretty prominent rural legislators who won’t be with us next session — Allan Ritter and Harvey Hilderbran — some big advocates for groundwater conservation districts. Are you worried that with as much representation now from urban areas that the rural GCD’s might get short shrift?
Steinbach: No, I’m not. All the legislators that we work with understand the importance of GCD’s. And I think one of the really important aspects of that is that groundwater is a private property interest. And so I think that the legislators recognize that local management of a local resource is important. Yes, I do think we’re going to have some discussions on getting clarity and certainty for permittees. I think we’re going to have some discussions on insuring that there’s consistency. I think there is a lot of consistency among GCD’s but we need to be able to show how that happens. And that’s one of the ways TAGD steps in. So, yes, I think we will be having discussions on consistency in GCD’s.
But I do not worry about legislators and other folks not understanding the importance of GCD’s because, truly, while GCD’s can be seen on one hand as, oh, you’ve got to go get your permit and its challenging and we might have a contested case hearing. But on the other side is those current users have the benefit of saying, “This GCD is in place so I know that my use is being considered.” Without a GCD, you don’t have that. Again, it goes back to balance. There’s some little holes we need to patch and we’re working on that. But, otherwise, no I’m not too worried about that.
Trib+Water: For somebody on the outside looking in, there are lots of moving parts to dealing with the water challenges facing Texas. Let me give you this chance to let everybody know what they need to understand about groundwater, how that fits into the larger 50-year challenge of water.
Steinbach: They are an imperative part of it. Without groundwater conservation districts, we don’t have as much data. We don’t have any management. Those communities without districts aren’t having an active role in their long term planning. As the drought continues and our surface water resources continue to decline, I think folks are going to be turning to groundwater more and more. It’s important that we, 1) collect the data, which the districts are doing with the water development board and the regional water planning groups and then, 2) make sure the districts have the tools they need to not only manage the aquifer but ensure that water is there for the next 50 years and beyond.