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The Q&A: Vanessa Puig Williams

In this week's Q&A, we interview Vanessa Puig Williams, author of a new article published this week in Texas Water Journal on portions of the state that don't regulate groundwater.

Vanessa Puig Williams is the author of “Regulating Unregulated Groundwater in Texas: How the State Could Conquer This Final Frontier.”

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:

Vanessa Puig Williams is the author of an article that discusses the pitfalls of a lack of groundwater regulation, while looking at some of the challenges Texas faces in an effort to propose workable solutions, titled “Regulating Unregulated Groundwater in Texas: How the State Could Conquer This Final Frontier.”

To read the article, published in Texas Water Journal, click here.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: In your recent article, you discuss how portions of aquifers that are not regulated by a groundwater conservation district may potentially be over pumped.  How much of the state is in these groundwater management free zones and are any of these areas in or near major population centers?

Vanessa Puig Williams: If you look at the map of groundwater districts in Texas, there’s about 100 of them that’ve been established. So approximately one-third of the surface area of the state is not regulated by a groundwater conservation district. A lot of those are in rural areas, but some of them — particularly here in central Texas — are near growing population centers. In Williamson County — which is where Georgetown is — the population there is one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

I’ll also preface this by saying that I’m more familiar with central Texas because that’s where I work, live and do most of my research, so the main one I’m familiar with is Williamson County. And currently, southwest Travis County doesn’t have a groundwater conservation district either.

Trib+Water: Have there been attempts to create districts or expand the boundaries of existing districts to regulate pumping in these areas? And, if so, is there a common reason why these attempts have failed?

Williams: There have been attempts to create a district in both southwest Travis County and Val Verde County. I think a common reason why attempts to create these districts have failed is because there’s fear of big government in our state.

In more rural areas, there’s a resistance to government regulations and the locals see the creation of the groundwater district as the government basically coming in and trying to take their water and infringe on their private property, because groundwater in Texas is owned privately by the overlying landowner.

When that attitude changes is when there’s a threat — when we see a groundwater developer coming in wanting to export that water out of that local community. Then there’s usually widespread support for the creation of the district, and an example of this would be in Hays County. There was no groundwater conservation district that was regulating the Trinity Aquifer underlying the Edwards Aquifer, so that aquifer was essentially unprotected. When Electro Purification — which was a private groundwater developer — came in with clearance to pump 5 million gallons of water a day, it really sparked a lot of fear and outrage in the community. The community was then galvanized and the Barton Springs-Edward Aquifer district boundaries were expanded to include that unregulated area during that legislative session.

Trib+Water: There are rumors that a movement toward a form of correlative rights might be in our state's future. Do you believe that is likely and how is that system different than what we have today?

Williams: I think there’ll likely be a legislative push. I’ve heard that some groups are going to try to push for statewide correlative rights. I don’t know how successful that will be or how far that’ll actually go within the Legislature, but I do believe there will be a push to do that. I’ve heard about that from a lot of different groups. Basically my answer would be, I do believe there will be a legislative push, but I’m not sure whether or not that’ll actually be successful in establishing statewide correlative rights across Texas.

I think some of the issues around that, as I said previously, in Texas, landowners own the groundwater beneath their property just like oil and gas. And correlative rights are a way of allocating oil and gas. It ensures that all those property owners get their fair share or their piece of the pie when that resource is being developed. The Supreme Court of Texas has been on a trajectory of using oil and gas laws to decide groundwater disputes. That started a conversation in the state about whether we should be using oil and gas laws more so in the realm of groundwater production, and I think the problem with that is that groundwater is not the same as oil and gas.

In the recent decisions that have come out of the Texas Supreme Court, like Edwards Aquifer Authority [EAA] vs. Day, and Coyote Lake Ranch [vs. City of Lubbock] — the court compares groundwater to oil and gas and talks about the similarities, but it also talks about the differences. It also talks about how groundwater regulation is essentially a different beast than oil and gas regulations because groundwater districts have to take into account other things like historic use or subsidence, or the effect that groundwater production has on the environment.

Unlike oil and gas, groundwater has value in place, and part of the job of groundwater districts is to make sure that it remains in place and that it is conserved. So the question is whether we really want to revert to a scheme that is based purely on production when one of the main points of regulating groundwater is to also ensure that it is conserved — which is very different than oil and gas. I think part of the issue is that our groundwater laws right now are not really providing any avenue for the landowners who do not want to use their piece of the pie or use their fair share; they actually want to conserve their fair share.

Our groundwater regulations do not protect them, and these landowners are not given a voice in the process, so I think that part of our law needs to be changed. If we are indeed going to go down this route of statewide correlative rights — if that actually is a successful legislative push — then the rights of landowners who wish to conserve their share of groundwater need to be protected just as much as those who want to pump it.

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