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Waterworld

Roberts County landowners are battling to save the Ogallala Aquifer—and what remains of their agrarian past.

By September 1995Comments

Rancher Don Morrison urged his neighbors to join a conservation district.
Wyatt McSpadden

THREE HOURS INTO THE PUBLIC HEARING held on July 5 by Panhandle Ground Water Conservation District No. 3, retired Gray County judge Carl Kennedy rose to speak. Kennedy, who has sharp blue eyes and a stern countenance, was wearing a light blue shirt with his monogram on the pocket, slate blue slacks, and loafers. His attire set him I apart from the other farmers and ranchers at the meeting, who were mostly in jeans and cowboy boots, but he shared their fears and spoke for them. Like a lot of people in the room, Kennedy owned land in Roberts County, which lies in the northeast part of the Panhandle and sits over the fattest part of the Ogallala Aquifer. For nearly two years, county residents have been battling a plan to pump water from their portion of the Ogallala and pipe it to eleven thirsty cities to the south. Now they had come to make their case for probably the last time.

The trouble began in the seventies, when some Roberts County landowners sold their water rights to the local utility company. For twenty years nothing happened, but in 1993, a subsidiary of the utility cut a deal to resell the rights to a municipal water authority, which wanted to pipe the water south. Ever since, ranchers such as Kennedy—who did not sell his rights—have been arguing that the water authority’s planned pumping will exhaust the trove of water below the property of everyone in the area. At the July hearing a hydrologist hired by the conservation district used graphs and charts to show how the pumping would create a depression in the Ogallala and lower the water table for miles around. “This project will destroy our ranch,” Kennedy said that night. “In time, it will make a desert out of our land. They’re not going to do it intentionally. These are good people. But we all know it’s going to happen.”

In the parched Panhandle, where the annual rainfall is only about eighteen inches, little arouses the same degree of emotion as water does. Yet underlying this particular fight is a concern about the state’s changing identity: As Texas becomes more urban, disputes over its resources are complicated by the friction of shifting demographics. No matter how many people crowd the cities, a rural mind-set still prevails—but for how much longer? While a sense of the more innocent, agrarian past survives in Roberts County, it is fed by water; anything that threatens the county’s water supply threatens to bring the era to a close.

The Ogallala Aquifer is a gigantic underground reservoir that stretches from Texas northward to South Dakota. It was created tens of millions of years ago by snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains, which deposited boulders, rocks, and gravel across the Great Plains, leaving behind a gravel formation that soaked up rainwater like a sponge. It currently holds roughly the same amount of water as Lake Huron. Because the aquifer lies below the ground, it is mysterious, but it is crucial to the local economy: Panhandle farmers use it to irrigate an area the size of New Jersey, nourishing many crops that otherwise would not grow in the semiarid climate. Until pumping began, farming on the High Plains was a difficult, often doomed enterprise, subject to ruin by drought.

Though the Ogallala serves as the well-spring of the local economy, it is a finite resource, and today so much water is being pumped out that it is rapidly being depleted. Its water used to seep out in plentiful springs, but most of those have dried up. New rainfall has trouble penetrating the caliche crust on top of the aquifer, so it is replenished at the slow rate of no more than one inch a year—while the farms and agribusiness operations that sprawl across the plains have been draining the aquifer by two feet annually. “By the year 2040, most of it will be gone,” says geologist John Ashworth of the Texas Water Development Board.

In Roberts County, where the seam of water fattens to three hundred feet deep, the day when wells might run dry used to be unimaginable. Besides the unusual abundance of water, the peculiar nature of the land ensured that residents were not pumping from the aquifer at the same rate as everybody else. Roberts County is surrounded by the vast tabletop of the High Plains, but in this corner of the Panhandle, the Canadian River long ago left the area rutted with hills and canyons. Much of the land is hard to plow, making it inhospitable to giant agribusiness operations. As a result, the county is still dotted with old-fashioned ranches and small farms. Most of the residents own land that has been in their families for generations.

In the seventies the local utility company, Southwestern Public Service, approached landowners in Roberts and other counties, looking for water to cool a nuclear reactor that it planned to build. The utility was offering $50 an acre in cash or $80 an acre paid out over time. “They didn’t pursue any of the cultivated land,” says Lewis Davis, who owns a farm near the site where the utility bought the water rights. “They mainly talked to people who owned ranchland. I presume they looked at water maps and saw where there was no irrigation—where it was virgin land, as far as wells go.” At first landowners resisted the temptation, but a few eventually succumbed. “My reason for selling was that the cattle market dropped during the Nixon years, when they froze beef prices,” says former congressman Bob Price, whose family bought its land in 1907. “I was looking for ways to meet my debts and keep the ranch. Yes, I always considered water sacred, but I was pushed into a corner.”

Fortunately for Roberts County, Southwestern Public Service didn’t build its nuclear reactor, and so the water was left untouched. But the issue was never entirely forgotten. “It was always fresh on my mind,” Davis says. “If they went in and drilled too heavily, what would that do to my livelihood?” His fears were realized in 1993, when the old transactions came back to haunt the area: A subsidiary of Southwestern called the Quixx Corporation struck a deal to sell the water rights to the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA), which supplies water to eleven cities in the Panhandle, including Lubbock and Amarillo.

The CRMWA administers the water supply in Lake Meredith, a man-made reservoir just west of Roberts County that is fed by the Canadian River. “At present the lake contains about 300,000 acre-feet of water,” said John Williams, the authority’s general manager, earlier this summer. “We’re in the medium-low range 575,000 acre-feet would be considered full. ” But the lake has never been full. Although Lake Meredith was supposed to supply 103,000 acre-feet of water per year, it has been able to supply only 76,000 acre-feet over the past few years. The lake’s water has also proven unexpectedly salty because a brine aquifer in New Mexico has been leaking into the Canadian River and sending salt down stream. Thirty thousand tons of salt and other minerals flow into the lake every year, and lately, the water the CRMWA has been sending to its member cities has not met state or federal standards.

The CRMWA will attempt to stop the seepage by pumping saltwater out of the New Mexico aquifer, but there is no telling when the effort will produce results. “We have a lake full of salty water, and the river channel is full of salty sand,” said Williams. So the CRMWA has decided to take the additional step of tapping into the Ogallala, extracting pure water, and mixing it with water from the lake. That would alleviate the salinity problem and also take care of the fact that there isn’t enough water in Lake Meredith to begin with.

In early 1994 Williams dropped by a meeting of the Panhandle Ground Water Conservation District to announce the CRMWA’s plan. The conservation district tries to conserve underground water by limiting the amount that can be pumped in areas it represents. At the time, the district represented all or part of seven counties in the Panhandle. Williams let it be known that the CRMWA was negotiating to purchase the water rights on 42,765 acres of land that lay mostly in western Roberts County for a total of $14.5 million. The spot where he wanted to put his wells was not then represented by the district, because most of Roberts County staunchly opposed any sort of water regulation. “People felt somebody would be controlling their water,” explains Don Morrison, a cattle operator with 28,000 acres and one of the county’s few landowners who belonged to the district. “The district says how many wells you can drill and how big the wells can be. But the water is not being replenished as fast as it’s being depleted, so I feel we do need a water conservation district.” Morrison’s sentiments were rare—until residents learned of the proposal to pipe water south.

As soon as Williams appeared before the conservation district, Valda Traughber, the feisty editor of the Miami Chief, made sure the news was broadcast throughout Roberts County. Traughber is almost housebound because of severe asthma and lung disease, but she writes prose that is as clear as a bell and editorials that could wake the dead. She filled the Chief with word of what she saw as the impending rape of the Ogallala. Residents’ concerns were not allayed when Williams seemed to waffle on the issue of how much water the CRMWA intended to extract. At first he said he wanted 30,000 acre-feet a year, but that figure soon jumped to 45,000 acre-feet and then to 65,000 acre-feet, though Williams maintained that much would only be needed in a drought. Then Traughber reported that the planned aqueduct was four and a half feet in diameter, meaning it could carry 81,800 acre-feet a year—twice what Williams was saying.

Williams concedes that the CRMWA was drawn to the location precisely because of the colossal accumulation of water there. “The Texas Water Development Board estimates that they have about 28 million acre-feet of water under Roberts County,” says Williams. He has no patience for those who mythologize the aquifer. “Let’s face it: Pumping water from the Ogallala is simply a mining operation. If there’s not a lot of water where you’re producing from, it’s going to be gone that much more quickly.” He adds that Roberts County residents “seem to think the water belongs to them, and in fact it doesn’t, because it has been sold. ”

He’s right. Texas law, unique among the states over the Ogallala, defines underground water as private property and guarantees owners the “right to capture” as much water as they can pump. (A notable exception to the rule is the Edwards Aquifer in Central Texas, which has been designated an underground stream and is therefore public property.) Of course, the aquifer acts like communal property, flowing where it will—so even though Carl Kennedy and other ranchers did not sell their water rights twenty years ago, they are likely to be affected by the CRMWA’s plans. When Southwestern Public Service bought the rights, it pledged to supply any rancher who sold his rights with a steady supply of water if he was adversely affected by its activities, and the CRMWA has said it will assume that burden. But property owners who did not sell will not be compensated.

Whenever ranchers and farmers talk of an end to their livelihoods, Williams retorts, “None of that land is under irrigation. The water is never going to be used for agriculture.” Yet several small farms within a few miles of the CRMWA’s reach do irrigate—Lewis Davis, for example, grows wheat, grain sorghum, and corn on one of them. And some nearby ranchers have discovered that they can feed twice as many cattle by irrigating their pastures. Geologists say a drop in the water level will make pumping more expensive, as farmers and ranchers will need more fuel to get water up to the surface.

Early last year, resigned to the fact that they couldn’t win the fight on their own, 75 Roberts County landowners signed a petition calling for an election to decide whether the county should join the Panhandle conservation district. The issue was debated up and down the county: Was joining a conservation district the only way to save the county’s agricultural operations? Or were the organizations a bad idea, verging on communism? To many residents, joining began to seem like the only means of leverage in dealing with Quixx and the CRMWA. “It just kills me to think our water might leave Roberts County, but those people made a mistake in selling their water rights,” says Lewis Davis. “Quixx bought the water rights, and it has the right to produce them. But it should be under the same restrictions that we are as irrigators. The project should be done according to the district’s regulations. ”

An election on whether to join the district was scheduled for May 7 of last year. As the date approached, Traughber’s editorials in the Chief grew more impassioned. “So easily could we allow this lone opportunity to control our future to slip through our fingers,” she wrote, “. . . so easily [did] we allow the shooting of the last buffalo.” Quixx and the CRMWA retaliated with a public relations blitz: Quixx sent letters to ratepayers urging them to vote against joining, and Williams tried to convince residents that the district wasn’t needed. “People wanted control over our activities, and we didn’t think that was necessary,” he said later. “They were going to have to pay taxes to the district, and we anticipated following good conservation practices anyway. ” Privately, Williams employed more colorful language. In a letter to Traughber on another subject, he fumed at her villainization of the CRMWA and wrote, “I think that last buffalo fell on your head. ”

On May 12 the Chiefs front page announced, Landslide for Water District. Roberts County had changed its mind about regulation, and a longstanding rule about transporting water to another county went into effect: The Panhandle conservation district requires anybody taking large quantities of water across county lines to get a permit and sets limits on how much water can leave. Even before the election, Quixx had taken the stance that the regulation shouldn’t apply, since its parent company had purchased the water rights long before Roberts County considered joining the district. The district had countered that the regulation would apply to everyone. On April 15, one month before the voting, Quixx had sued the conservation district—in Amarillo, one of the eleven cities parched for Roberts County’s water. Ingeniously, Quixx argued that its property rights would be adversely affected by the rule, as the value of the water rights was likely to be hurt. Here was an ironic twist: Urban and business interests invoking the principle of property rights in a battle with a rural community, turning the farmers’ favorite weapon against them.

That June, the parties began negotiating to settle out of court. Quixx agreed to apply for a permit (which would transfer to any party that purchased the water rights), and the district made clear it would grant one. But how much water would go? More than a year later, at the district’s public hearing on July 5, Carl Kennedy urged the conservation district to be conservative in the amount of water it allowed Quixx to take. “I’m not denying these people the right to take their water,” he said, “but please don’t commit future generations to requirements that seem reasonable today but may change over time. I urge you, don’t give them the moon today.”

On August 2, the conservation district announced its verdict at a stormy meeting in White Deer. The district voted to allow Quixx (or the CRMWA) to take 37,800 acre-feet of water a year, except in drought conditions, when it may take 45,000 acre-feet. That’s less than Williams wanted—his bottom line, he insisted, was now 40,000 acre-feet and 50,000 in a drought—but still enough to affect surrounding properties. The conservation district will monitor the effect on those properties and reserves the right to impose further regulation if wells show large declines. Although it seems likely that the CRMWA will take what it can get, Williams said he would present the news to the CRMWA board but could no longer support the deal with Quixx under these conditions. And so the saga of the Ogallala Aquifer continues.

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