Here in the South Plains it's been a war over water rights between local producers and conservation efforts, but now those producers are claiming victory after a landmark Texas Supreme Court ruling on Friday.
The court ruled landowners in Texas have an ownership interest in the water underneath their land, and that the government cannot restrict how a landowner consumes the water underneath their property without compensating them.
"It's a big, big deal, a big victory for landowners," said local cotton farmer Kirby Lewis. "It's a victory for everyone in the state of Texas that's concerned about protecting your property rights."
These court rulings conflict with new water well restrictions by the High Plains Underground Water District Board that were passed last summer, and took effect on January first.
Just days before the court's rulings, the HPUWD held a public hearing where more than 100 local farmers and producers showed up to plead with the board to revise the new water restrictions. Those restrictions limit how much water a landowner can use of their own well water to irrigate their crops, but exempts household water use. It also requires the landowners to purchase and install meters to monitor their water usage.
"With the new rules, half of my farm would have to be taken out of production. It would be a huge economic loss for us," said Lewis. "We've been looking at close to $100,000 just on our farm for putting in meters."
Last week the board chose not to revise the rules, but instead adopted penalties and fines for violating the new restrictions. The board also passed a two year grace period where landowners would not be penalized for violating the rules.
With the Texas Supreme Court ruling in favor of landowners and their property rights, the board will now have to take a step back and look at the new restrictions. "Only time will tell," said James Powell, HPUWD precinct one board member. "The water district, we're here to try to protect the Ogallala Aquifer, but at the same time there are producers out here that are trying their best to make a living on it."
Powell says the new ruling will definitely effect the rules they just put in place to help conserve the aquifer. State legislature requires the board to have a goal in place for future water conservation. The restrictions were part of the "50/50 Goal" to have 50% of the Ogallala Aquifer in place in 50 years.
"With the rules in play we are trying our hardest to see how we can maneuver these rules to not just satisfy the legislation, but also where it will not cause any true harm to the producers," said Powell.
Powell says right now the rules are still in effect, but over the next few months the board will have to discuss how the court's ruling will change their conservation efforts.
As for Lewis, he says the farmers are already doing their part to help preserve the aquifer, and these new restrictions are unnecessary. "Farmers are doing what they need to do to conserve this water. We won't be in business if we waste water; it's too expensive to do that," said Lewis.
Lewis says several years ago he installed a sub-surface drip irrigation to his farm. At $1,000 per acre to install the system, Lewis says it increased his water efficiency from about 50% to 98%. "It takes quite a few years to recover the cost of that. All this money that is spent on conservation, you don't want to make rules that throw this out," he said.
Lewis says as technology gets better, conservation of water will be much easier, and that it's already come a long way.
"Me and my brother, we farm land that's been passed down from my great granddad, to our granddad, to our dad and so on down the line. We fully want to pass it off in a good shape to our kids and grand kids."
The High Plains Water District issued a statement on Monday saying that although the groundwater is owned by the landowner, "the pumping of groundwater is subject to regulation by groundwater conservation districts."
The district says, "The Court's ruling makes clear that the state can regulate groundwater production, which it has chosen to do through groundwater conservation districts, and provides that such regulation is essential to groundwater conservation and use across the state."
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