"The Q&A: Gabe Collins and Hilmar Blumberg" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
Gabe Collins and Hilmar Blumberg are co-authors of an article about an alternative form of groundwater management by local groundwater districts titled, “Implementing three-dimensional groundwater management in a Texas groundwater conservation district.”
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: Can you briefly describe your article and what topics it touches on?
Hilmar Blumberg: Our conservation district in Guadalupe County was late coming to the table. In Guadalupe County, we have a very small part of the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, but we still felt like it was necessary to conserve and govern it. So we created a conservation district in 1999.
When we created our district, we were new to the game. We just simply borrowed rules that were being used in the districts around us. These old-fashioned rules were designed for a state of very low demand and abundant water where no large drillers had come in and attacked this water yet. There was so much extra water that there was really no concern about a fair division of the water. It was really anyone could take as much as they want.
After we formed our district, San Antonio and cities around us attacked our aquifer because they realized the rules allowed them to come in and do a deal with a very small number of landowners. I decided that it was necessary to come up with a new set of rules that created a fair distribution of water rights and an overall cap that included everyone in the marketplace of selling water.
Gabe Collins: What I was arguing is that groundwater in place should be treated a little bit like oil and gas where extraction is not simply rated on the amount of surface acreage that you have, but that also you look at what’s there in the reservoir and you start to incorporate ideas of fair opportunity of access for all the different players. You try to move towards ideas where you can quantify volumes of water in place and turn those into something that are effectively a legally protected form of real property.
What we’re after is something that goes a step beyond and starts to build a protective fence around the underground water resources so that you actually put some protections on that property and you open the door for creative ways to monetize these resources and extract more economic value.
Trib+Water: Can you describe the basic blueprint for how groundwater is managed in Texas?
Blumberg: Conservation districts were created in the abstract by the Legislature in 1949, but it was up to the various areas over the aquifers to organize their own groundwater conservation districts. Once locally established, new districts were submitted to the Legislature for authorization. In this way, over the years, conservation districts, especially over the more important aquifers, have come into being. Meanwhile, additional legislation further defining and strengthening these conservation districts has been continually passed.
Generally, conservation districts were given the power to come up with their own local rules concerning well spacing and limits on pumping. These limits have usually been based only on surface acreage and on the needs of agriculture, but have also always included the ancient "rule of capture,” which would allow anyone to drill and extract, and it was never really established by law who actually owned the groundwater, or how much. For years, this creaky system has more or less worked, because of abundant supply and little demand. Then, thirsty cities with large pipelines entered the picture, and aquifer governance was quickly turned on its head.
I decided we needed something much better to address a raft of growing problems, so I came up with a new metric to distribute water rights based not on “so much per surface acre,” but on how much saturated sand was beneath every individual property. This new model employed digital surface property maps, aquifer thickness maps, and computer integration and simulation. Ultimately, by computer, every property owner was allotted a pro rata share of the overall annual district extraction limit based on that owner's exact percentage share of the total amount of saturated sand within the district.
Collins: There are some interesting discussions that I think may take place during this legislative session where certain parties are starting to advocate for statewide governance approaches to groundwater. The basic thrust at present has been very much predicated on local control of groundwater resources. At a fundamental level, it’s important for long-term management to understand that these aquifers span jurisdictional boundaries, and you do have to take an aquifer-wide approach to properly manage the resource. Trying to govern a localized water resource in a centralized way is not an effective way to do things.
One of the things we like about this model Hilmar and his district developed is that we’re looking at what’s going on under the ground as well. This model is also scalable to a lot of other districts and other aquifers, so even if we have a discussion that starts to focus more on looking beyond the individual groundwater district level and governing some of these large aquifers in a more comprehensive way, our model is very adaptable to that.
Trib+Water: There are 101 groundwater districts in Texas. Do you think the typical district covering a single county is a sustainable model in the long run or is a multi-county district like the Edwards Aquifer Authority or just one statewide groundwater agency a better long term model?
Collins: I think a statewide groundwater regulation agency is not. In may ways, taking that road would fly in the face of the private property protections that we hold so dear in Texas. I think looking at things on a county-by-county basis is too small of a scale because you’re only capturing part of the aquifer. I think a multi-county approach is probably ultimately the right way to go and what form that takes will be a subject of intense debate.
I think the EAA approach — something where you’ve literally taken a large number of counties and melded them together as far as groundwater management is concerned — is not going to sit well with a lot of local property owners. Something that may be a bit of a compromised solution where you make sure that local interests are properly represented, but you manage the resource on a multi-county basis is where we’d like to see things end up.