Last weekend, I was playing tour guide for friends. We went all over the county looking at the many landscapes of Mason County.
We traveled state highways and county roads. We saw granite uplifts, limestone outcroppings, deep sand and river valleys. My guests began to grasp something that many people don't realize when they first visit the county - there is no one description for the land in Mason County, we have many types of geology, and many types of ecologies to go with those landscapes.
One thing that is constant, and it's one of the things that makes Mason County so appealing, is that we have an unusual abundance of water in our area. There are three rivers in the county (Llano, James and San Saba). We receive approximately 22-25" of rainfall a year, more than adequate (in the good years) to provide an abundance of grasses, forbs and other grazing for livestock and wildlife. And, our underground water is abundant, pure and relatively close to the surface in most parts of the county.
When early settlers began moving into the Texas landscape, water was the element that helped to define the population centers. Communities developed and grew near springs, rivers and good wells,,,, any place that had good, potable fresh water. As those same communities grew, their requirements for water also grew. The ones that were able to meet the need continued to grow, while those that could not acquire more water stopped growing, or disappeared entirely.
The natural cycles of drought in Texas have tested the ability of its residents to use their water resources effectively. The drought of the 1950s taught residents of Mason County that they could not rely upon surface water or rainfall alone to meet their needs. Ranchers learned that they could not obtain all their needed water from shallow wells and windmills, while farmers abandoned dry land farming and embraced deep well irrigation to produce crops even in the driest years.
For decades, these techniques seemed more than adequate to meet our needs. But, we are not the only ones using our water resources, and therein lies the problem.
Surface water in Texas is owned by the State, and that means that the water flowing in our creeks and rivers belongs to everyone, not to the individual landowners. Because of the vagueness of the legal language, fights over that surface water have escalated, particularly during the last few years of dry weather. One has only to look as far as Menard County (San Saba River), Llano County (Llano River) or Travis County (Colorado River), to see what happens when the water stops flowing in communities that depend primarily upon access to surface water.
And then there is the water below ground. Texans enjoy "the right of capture." That means, very basically, that a landowner has the rights of use of the water that underlies their property and that they can use it for the purposes they desire. But, we do not have an absolute right. Therefor, we can not recklessly pump out the water from underground and we have water districts to help determine reasonable uses and reasonable quantities that can be pumped. Except the water districts don't really have a great deal of teeth when it comes to policing water use, so much of the oversight comes down to an exercise of rational thought and judgement.
Of course, the communities that have inadequate surface or subsurface water resources have to do something to provide for their citizens. They build dams to control the variations in yearly rainfall; but, in the driest of years, even that does not always provide enough to meet the needs of citizens. So, wells are drilled to supplement the surface supplies. Except not all areas of the state have access to adequate groundwater reserves.
San Angelo is a great example of such a city. They sit on the Concho River and have dammed its tributaries to control flooding and to impound water for later use. That no longer meets their needs. They are now preparing to begin moving water from wells drilled into the Hickory Sand Aquifer and to transport it back west so they can supplement their reserves.
San Antonio and Austin are in a similar situation. With their ever growing populations, the impounded sources of water (Lake Travis, Canyon Lake), are now unable to meet their water needs. Both cities sit over the top of the Edwards Aquifer, one of the most heavily regulated water reserves in the state. So, they start looking elsewhere. And we look pretty good to them when they begin those searches.
Add to those desperate searches for water the rapid expansion of the shale fields in south and north central Texas, and nervousness about our water resources becomes more justified as rational worry rather than paranoia. Those oil and gas wells require millions of gallons of water to perform the injection required to release the mineral riches that lie buried below ground. Most of the wells are in areas that already have little water and limited access to any reserves of water either above or below ground. And they're not slowing up exploration or production, so the water demands will only continue to grow.
It has often been said that the next greatest fight in Texas will be over water. Mason County is on the front lines of that battle, and we must be prepared for the challenges that are certain to come our direction. We sit at ground zero, and we are in the crosshairs of cities, companies and lawmakers, all of them taking a bead upon our water.
Are we ready for the fight?
It’s all just my opinion.