It's a war over water that many local farmers, producers and landowners are not willing to lose. The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District held a public hearing on Tuesday to discuss enforcing new water restrictions on irrigation that went into effect this year.
More than a hundred landowners packed the district's boardroom and lined the hallways – all concerned about the future of their crops and farms. Tuesday's meeting was to discuss amending and approving the penalties for the water regulations that started January 1, but it soon turned into a plea from landowners to scrap the regulations and start over.
"Our livelihood is at stake," said Kirby Lewis a local cotton farmer, "These areas where we will be heavily impacted by these regulations … a lot of guys' livelihoods are at stake."
The Board approved groundwater regulations last summer. For farmers and producers those restrictions put limits on water wells capable of pumping 17.5 gallons a minute. Those wells now have to be registered with the district with a meter put in place to report how much water is being used. Over the next few years, the amount of water for production will also be limited.
These restrictions do not apply to household wells.
"There are estimates it could cost in excess of $120 million dollars for producers in the 16 counties in the district to put these meters in," said Lewis. That expense will be producer's responsibility, as well as reporting to the district their usage. If they fail to do so, fines will be issued for the violations.
Lewis was just one of dozens who voiced their concerns to the board, pleading with them to revise the restrictions. Most argued the restrictions are intrusive and a direct violation of their right to private property, saying they paid for the land, they own the land and the water on the land is rightfully theirs.
They also argued the rules would hurt their crops and have a negative impact on the agricultural business that fuels the local economy.
The reasoning behind the new restrictions is the "50/50 Goal" set forth by the HPUWCD to ensure water conservation for future generations. The goal is that 50% of the saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer will still be in the aquifer 50 years later. Management plans such as this are required by state legislature.
"The fact that they're not going to have any water in the many areas in these 16 counties is going to keep people from farming unless we do something to conserve it," said Brain Sledge, legal counsel for the HPUWCD. "There are already large areas of west Texas where it's too late; nothing can be done."
Sledge says there are about 100 or so districts similar to the HPUWCD that are required to set goals for future use of aquifers, and many have similar restrictions as these.
After hours of public comments, the board decided not to revise the restrictions but instead, as was the plan, they approved the penalties for violating the rules. However, the board did put in an amendment for a two year moratorium where the restrictions would not be enforced and no penalties could be given out during that period.
The board also told landowners there will be a team researching for the next 18 months on how to better use the meters and report water usage. Sledge says if they come up with a better plan to accomplish the 50/50 Goal, they'll look at those options. He says the board can vote to revise the rules in future meetings.
The Protect Water Rights Coalition, PWR says if these same restrictions stay in place – a future lawsuit against the HPUWCD will be inevitable.
Copyright 2012 KCBD NewsChannel 11