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Texas Could Face a Grave Water Crisis Because of a Little Known Law

'The Rule of Capture' could make a few big landowners extremely wealthy at the expense of every body else.

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“The idea to export water from a desert is just so insane that you would laugh if you were not so afraid that it will actually happen,” says Kirby Warnock, whose relatives farmed the now-arid land east of Fort Stockton. “I mean, on the face of it, any proposal to export water from a county that only gets 13 inches annual rainfall should be shut down immediately, except for the ‘flat earth’ groundwater laws we have in Texas. I am hopeful that Mr. Williams’ proposal will finally spark some legislation to implement strong groundwater laws in Texas, and recognize that water is a shared resource.”

Neither the lakes constructed over the past century in Texas, nor the reservoirs below the ground that took thousands of years to fill, are satisfying the thirst of Texas’ growing population. Otherwise, Kinney County landowners wouldn’t be suing the local groundwater district for restricting the amount of groundwater they’d like to export. There wouldn’t have been the unsuccessful lawsuit filed by the San Antonio Water System against the Lower Colorado River Authority for canceling a $1 billion dollar deal to sell Colorado River water to San Antonio. And there wouldn’t be water marketers such as End-Op making deals with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority to move groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer southeast of San Antonio to nearby cities and suburbs. It’s also why almost every creek, spring, and river in Texas is showing signs of stress.

Those realities make the fence and cage surrounding Big Chief Spring adjacent to the pool in Fort Stockton all the more curious. The cage was put in place decades ago to protect swimmers from the powerful force of the spring flow, a force that is now gone. Since the springs went dry, the cage has become just a memento of what once was. Even if springs have no legal rights in Texas, maybe, just maybe, Clayton Williams Jr. will do the right thing, and pure water will once again gush out from this once-sacred ground.

We shouldn’t hold our breath.

Joe Nick Patoski is working on two upcoming books, one about the Dallas Cowboys and the other on Texas' best stewards of the environment. This story is adapted from a project about water in Texas.

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