February 6, 2004
By Mike Barnett
Get ready for Senate Bill 3.
That's the warning issued by Texas Farm Bureau State Legislative Director Billy Howe to TFB leaders from across the state at the recent Leadership Conference in College Station.
"In 1997 we had Senate Bill 1, the first big piece of water legislation. 2001 we had Senate Bill 2. And the way it's shaping up in the Texas Senate, it looks like Senate Bill 3 may be on the horizon in 2005," Howe said.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has appointed a special Select Committee on Water Policy composed of 10 members of the Senate representing every geographic area of the state.
"I'm concerned that we need to go back and take a look at water and work with agriculture, work with all the groups to make sure we've got it right," Dewhurst said at the conference. "That's one of the reasons I recently formed the Senate Select Committee on Water Policy, to identify solutions for securing and distributing our water as we go into this new century. It's clear to me that as we look at the water supply, we have a critical need in agriculture and our cities. We've got to make sure everybody's protected."
Howe said the Select Committee has their work cut out for them, and that "second look" could have some implications for farmers and ranchers.
One item of concern to Farm Bureau is interbasin transfers, and a possible attempt to repeal the junior water rights provision. The junior water rights provision on surface water refers to the priority of where the water comes from over to where the water's going, "so that people back home always have water versus the folks that are coming into that river basin and piping that water out across the state of Texas," Howe said.
Opponents of the junior water rights provision say it prevents them from moving water in the state to where it's needed most.
"So there's always going to be attacks on that provision and this next session is going to be no different," Howe noted.
He feels groundwater will once again be the most hotly debated issue.
"Many of you have probably seen the editorials in the paper attacking the rule of capture, saying, `This is the 100-year anniversary of rule of capture. It's arcane, it's outdated, it needs to go,'" Howe said. "Farm Bureau says we don't think that's the case. We say what you need is a groundwater conservation district if you don't want rule of capture."
Most of the water-related problems have cropped up with the recent controversies over water marketing in Texas, Howe said, noting attempts by T. Boone Pickens to market West Texas water, the State of Texas looking at leasing groundwater rights on state land, and fights between landowners over who is going to market the most water to San Antonio.
"There are some doubts about whether or not groundwater conservation districts can handle these controversial issues in a fair way," Howe related. "So the legislature may look at trying to do something with these groundwater districts, and we have to make sure that these districts remain locally controlled entities that look out for that local community."
Another issue: a joint interim study on instream flows that has the potential to leave some producers high and dry. Howe said some "experts" say there are no provisions in Texas law that ensures enough water stays in Texas rivers and streams to protect the environment and wildlife in estuaries and bays.
"That's going to be a challenge for us, particularly in those river basins where they say our rivers are over-appropriated," Howe said. "In these over-appropriated streams, if all the water's permitted out, then that means somebody's got to give some back. Are they going to take it? Are they going to fight? How are they going to do that?"
In another water-related area, a Water Conservation Task Force (TFB President Kenneth Dierschke is a member) is currently looking at a water conservation plan for Texas, which Howe said could be good for agriculture.
"If we can get the cities to conserve water, then maybe they don't need to build a reservoir," he stated. "Maybe they don't need to come and lease groundwater rights and come and pump the groundwater out of rural areas into the urban areas if they use their water wisely.
"And I think the largest focus on water conservation is going to be on the cities and what they can do to reduce their consumption of water."
Still, even here is a hint of danger for agriculture, which uses more ground and surface water than all Texas cities put together.
"So we have to make sure they're not going to try to come in and get the legislation to mandate conservation practices in Texas," Howe said.