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Municipal conjunctive water use on the Texas High Plains.

Otis W. Templer (*)


On the semiarid, water-short High Plains of West Texas, cities often make conjunctive use of water from widely dispersed sources, specifically groundwater from the dwindling Ogallala aquifer and the meager flow of streams rising in or crossing the area. Nineteen High Plains towns and cities, including Lubbock and Amarillo, receive most of their water supply from municipal water authorities which distribute surface water from Lake Meredith and the much smaller Mackenzie and White River reservoirs to a population of almost 500,000. Most of these communities continue to use preexisting groundwater reserves to improve quality or supplement their surface supply, and the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority has acquired extensive groundwater rights so that it can augment and improve the quality of water it dispenses from Lake Meredith. Although Texas water law has hindered rather than encouraged this conjunctive use, integrated water use, if not integrated water management, is widely practiced on the High Plain s. [C] 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

On the semiarid, water-short Texas High Plains, cities often practice integrated or conjunctive use (1) with water drawn from these sources: 1) groundwater from the dwindling Ogallala aquifer, and 2) the meager flow of the streams rising in or crossing the area. The Ogallala aquifer has long provided most of the water used for irrigation and it was the only source of municipal water supply for virtually all High Plains communities until the late 1960s. Most local runoff flows to shallow playa lake basins. Though playas are the chief source of recharge to the Ogallala aquifer, most of the water they store evaporates.

Lake Meredith on the Canadian River is the largest of the few reservoirs on the High Plains: Nineteen High Plains towns and cities, including Lubbock and Amarillo, receive most of their water supply from municipal water authorities or districts that distribute the waters of Lake Meredith and the much smaller Mackenzie and White River Reservoirs to a population of almost 500,000. However, most member cities continue to use preexisting groundwater reserves to improve the quality of or to supplement their water supply, and the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority has acquired extensive groundwater rights to augment and improve the quality of the water it distributes from Lake Meredith.

Two other High Plains water resources, playa lake water and atmospheric moisture, are of much less direct importance for urban water supply, and are not integrated in municipal conjunctive water use and management plans. As previously noted, most of the runoff that accumulates in the thousands of playa lake basins on the Texas High Plains evaporates. In some High Plains communities, playa basins have been modified and because of increased runoff in urban areas serve as more permanent recreational lakes in city parks. Though playa water is used conjunctively as a supplemental irrigation source by some farmers, the playa lakes are too small and fill too irregularly to be of significance for direct urban consumption (Templer, 1990). Also, on the High Plains several cloud seeding projects are in operation aimed at increasing precipitation from warm-season convective clouds. Among benefits from anticipated enhanced precipitation are increased runoff to municipal water supply reservoirs and reduced rates of ground water depletion. At present, positive results of these precipitation enhancement operations cannot be proven with certainty and some meteorologists still question their effectiveness (Templer, 2000).

Though integrated water use is widely practiced by cities on the Texas High Plains, the interconnections between surface and groundwater and the relationship to watersheds and aquifers are much less direct and obvious than for most other hydrologic situations in Texas, such as the unique Edwards Limestone aquifer of the San Antonio region. The Edwards aquifer is an artesian or confined aquifer. Water moves rapidly through huge solution channels in the limestone, flowing almost like a surface stream. Streams recharging the aquifer and the groundwater in it are closely interconnected both spatially and hydrologically. In contrast, the Ogallala aquifer exists under unconfined, or water-table conditions, and water in it moves quite slowly through the formation. Thus, an integrated water management plan like that which has been imposed on the Edwards aquifer would probably be both unwarranted and unrealistic under High Plains hydrologic conditions which involve a very different spatial perspective. In this paper, the author, a geographer/lawyer: 1) summarizes Texas water rights law pertaining to the High Plains water resources which are used conjunctively by cities, and 2) discusses examples of integrated water use by several communities in this semiarid environment.

2. Texas water law and High Plains water resources

Conjunctive water use by towns and cities on the Texas High Plains involves: 1) percolating groundwater drawn from the massive Ogallala aquifer which underlies most of the region and is the major water resource, and 2) the meager flow of the few streams that rise on or flow across the High Plains. Texas law is clear concerning the use and ownership of percolating groundwater. Early in the past century, the absolute ownership doctrine, or rule of capture, was established in the famous case of Houston and T. C. Ry. Co. v. East (1904). Under this doctrine, landowners can pump and use the groundwater beneath their property with little regulation. A few subsequent court decisions have established that landowners can sell their groundwater rights, that underground water can be used either on the land from which it is pumped or elsewhere and that liability can be imposed where negligent pumping causes land surface subsidence, but the rule has not been modified to any significant degree.

The major control over landowner rights is exercised by local underground water conservation districts (UWCDs) established under a 1949 general law or by special legislation. At present, there are some 45 UWCDs operating in Texas, covering all or large portions of most major aquifers (Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, 1999). Most UWCDs have rather broad statutory powers to make and enforce rules for conserving, preserving, protecting, recharging, and preventing waste of groundwater. The most significant regulatory powers the 11 groundwater districts on the High Plains enforce pertain to well-spacing and off-farm waste of groundwater or tailwater (Templer, 1992). Several of the UWCDs operating on the High Plains are among the oldest and largest in the state. Texas courts have considered challenges to the absolute ownership doctrine several times in recent decades, but in 1999 the state Supreme Court again upheld the rule of capture (Sipriano et al. ..., 1999). It did, however, suggest that the Texas Le gislature should consider revising the doctrine, but noted that it would be inappropriate for the court to change the rule so soon after the Legislature in Senate Bill 1 declared "local groundwater districts to be the preferred means of managing groundwater" (Haurwitz, 1999, p. B1).

In arid and semiarid environments it is often assumed that limited groundwater resources need to be more rigorously controlled by the state and that the prior appropriation or similar doctrines are superior to the absolute ownership doctrine. However, a recent geographic study compared New Mexico's prior appropriation system and Texas' local district approach to groundwater management. It concluded that New Mexico's centralized system was in no way superior, that differences in depletion of the Ogallala aquifer between the two states were insignificant and that Texas' local district approach was probably more conducive to sustaining the region's economic base (Emel and Roberts, 1995).

With regard to water in streams, Texas is a dual-doctrine state, recognizing both the riparian doctrine, a complex blend of Hispanic civil law and English common law principles, and the prior appropriation doctrine, which was adopted late in the 19th century, for allocating surface water rights. Needless to say, state water agencies and water users experienced great difficulty in coordinating the diverse private and public water rights emanating from these diametrically different doctrines, which existed side by side on the same stream. However, a massive, recently completed, state-wide surface water rights adjudication, begun in 1969 to merge all unrecorded surface water rights into the state-administered permit system, has largely resolved this complex management issue (Templer, 1992).

Thus, private or landowner rights generally pertain to percolating groundwater, and the state has appropriated the flow of rivers and streams. The resulting diverse private and public water rights for these different legal classes have made the conjunctive management of interconnected surface and groundwater resources considerably more difficult (Templer, 1980).

The primary water resource of the Texas High Plains, one of the state's and nation's most productive agricultural regions, is the Ogallala aquifer. The extensive Ogallala Formation underlies most of the area and the region's irrigated agriculture and many of its towns are almost solely dependent on groundwater pumped from this nonrenewable source. A large part of Texas' groundwater reserves, about 385 million acre-feet, is stored in the Ogallala (Knowles, 1984). Recharge to the aquifer is derived solely from infiltration of local precipitation and from runoff accumulating in the playa lake basins. Studies have estimated that recharge from diffused percolation occurs at fractions of an inch per year, while playas may contribute up to a few inches per year (Peckham and Ashworth, 1993). Thus, natural recharge is relatively small when compared to total pumpage. Between 1940 and the present, withdrawals have generally ranged between four and eight million acre-feet per year. It has been estimated that irrigated a creage will decrease to about one-third its present level unless another source of water can be found. The period from 1980 to 1990, however, saw a marked change in the trend of declining water levels. In some parts of the area, water-level rises were observed, and declines were less than had been predicted. Potential benefits offered by water conservation programs and improved irrigation management practices promoted by the local UWCDs have resulted in a much more optimistic outlook toward the future for the region.

As has been shown, most of the limited surface runoff on the High Plains accumulates in the thousands of small, shallow playa lake basins. Other surface drainage patterns on the High Plains are very poorly developed and erosion by streams is slight, with only a few shallow canyons, or draws, cutting back beyond the Caprock Escarpment into the eastern edge of the tableland, the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon in the Red River watershed being the most notable example. These eastward-flowing, intermittent stream channels provide about the only semblance of an external drainage system. Though several major Texas streams, in particular the Red, Brazos and Colorado rivers, have their headwaters on the High Plains, their upper basins usually provide little surface flow to the area east of the Caprock Escarpment (Templer and Urban, 1995b). Thus, it is apparent that opportunities to develop these local intermittent streams are quite limited. Lubbock's long delayed Lake Alan Henry on the South Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River some 50 miles southeast of the city provides an excellent example of the difficulties of trying to develop the region's meager surface water sources (Templer et al., 1993; Templer and Urban, 1995a).

The exception to the generalization of limited stream flow on the High Plains is the Canadian River which rises in the mountains of northeastern New Mexico. It has a greater sustained flow than the rivers rising on the High Plains, and its waters were apportioned among New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma in the early 1950s by the Canadian River Compact. In its 180-mile path eastward across the Texas Panhandle, the river has cut a broad valley or gorge 400 to 500 feet deep through the alluvium comprising the Ogallala Formation. This valley, often referred to as the "Breaks of the Canadian River," has rugged, dissected terrain unsuited to irrigated agriculture. Thus, as the only stream on the Texas High Plains capable of large scale development, it became the focus of the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation's unique Canadian River Project focusing on providing urban water supply which resulted in the impoundment of Lake Meredith in the mid-1960s (Templer and Urban, 1995b; 1996a).

The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority (CRMWA) was created by the Texas Legislature to distribute water from Lake Meredith to 11 member cities, including Lubbock and Amarillo, the largest urban centers on the High Plains. The CRMWA water distribution system consists of 322 miles of pipeline aqueduct and 10 pumping stations. It transports Canadian River water southward into the Red, Brazos and Colorado river watersheds and is one of the longest and oldest interbasin water transfers in Texas (Williams and Satterwhite, n.d.). Eight other High Plains communities are supplied with surface water from two much smaller reservoirs. The Mackenzie Municipal Water Authority draws its water from a small reservoir on Tule Creek, a Red River tributary, and serves four small towns on the High Plains. White River Reservoir on a Brazos River tributary provides water for four other towns through the White River Municipal Water District (Templer and Urban, 1996b).

3. Conjunctive water use by High Plains cities

Most High Plains cities that depend primarily on water drawn from Lake Meredith or Mackenzie and White River reservoirs use this surface water in conjunction with groundwater pumped from the Ogallala aquifer. Until the late 1960s, almost all cities and towns on the Texas High Plains relied solely on the dwindling Ogallala aquifer for their municipal water supply. A number of communities, especially Lubbock and Amarillo, which could no longer expand their local well fields began purchasing groundwater rights to large tracts of land, in some cases long distances away. Lubbock has acquired over 80,000 acres of groundwater rights in the Sandhills located some 60-70 miles northwest of the city, and in the less intensively developed northern High Plains, Amarillo acquired over 163,000 acres of groundwater rights in adjacent counties and continues to add to its groundwater reserves. Nevertheless, once water deliveries from Lake Meredith began in 1968, the Canadian River became the chief component of urban supply for all 11 member cities of the CRMWA (Templer and Urban, 1995b; 1996a).

Conjunctive use of surface and groundwater was contemplated during development of the Canadian River Project. The Project's main purpose was to impound relatively low quality river water in Lake Meredith to blend with higher quality Ogallala groundwater to attain a water supply appropriate for municipal use and human consumption (Texas Dept. of Water Resources, 1977). Thus, most CRMWA member cities have continued to utilize their existing groundwater wells for blending and to augment the supply from Lake Meredith during seasonal periods of peak usage. Recently, however, due to the slowly degrading quality of groundwater is some areas of the High Plains and more stringent limits imposed by the Safe Drinking Water Act, some smaller member towns in the south have been forced to depend on the supply from Lake Meredith to meet all their water demands (Templer et al., 1993).

The Canadian River Project has encountered several problems that promote expanded conjunctive water use, chief among them: 1) reduced inflow and storage in Lake Meredith, and 2) increasing salinity of the lake's waters. The first problem has forced the CRMWA to reduce water delivery to member cities for the past decade or so to 80 percent of their original annual allocations. Excess salinity has also required blending more groundwater to improve water quality. Both problems have also caused CRMWA cities to use and deplete their nonrenewable groundwater reserves more rapidly (Templer and Urban, 1996b).

In 1994, the CRMWA proposed a Conjunctive Use Groundwater Supply Project aimed at acquiring groundwater rights to a large acreage in southwestern Roberts County and southeastern Hutchinson County, located in the Texas Panhandle east of Lake Meredith. This project, which is nearing completion, will allow the Authority to significantly augment and increase the amount of water supplied to member cities. CRMWA member cities have agreed to pay their share of an estimated cost of almost $77 million for this project. Ogallala groundwater will be pumped from the nearly 43,000-acre well field in Roberts and Hutchinson counties through a 36-mile-long pipeline to connect with the CRMWA's existing pipeline aqueduct. This project, which should be in operation in 2001, is expected to yield an additional 40,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year. A permit obtained from the local UWCD allows extraction of 40,000 acre-feet per year in normal years and the larger amount under emergency conditions. This area was chosen over other potential groundwater sources because the supply there is expected to last from 35 to 50 years. Another major benefit of this conjunctive use will be that high-quality Ogallala groundwater from the well field will be blended with lake water in an approximate 30-70 ratio, thus reducing salinity in addition to augmenting water supply (Williams and Satterwhite, n.d.).

North of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle portion of the High Plains, ranching is a more prominent activity and the Ogallala aquifer there is generally much less depleted than on the South Plains. Recently ranchers there sold a large block of groundwater rights to Amarillo for future municipal use. Still other entrepreneurs are attempting to acquire and market even larger quantities of Ogallala groundwater to municipal/industrial interests as far away as Dallas/Fort Worth and San Antonio, a move which concerns High Plains water planning agencies (Croteau, 2000). Recently, the Llano Estacado Regional Water Management Planning Group has proposed the adoption of a project to purchase groundwater in Hartley or Roberts counties in the Panhandle, transporting it by pipeline to several small cities not served by the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority and eventually tying in to Lubbock's pipeline which brings water to the city from its Sandhills well field in B alley and Lamb counties (Groundwater Purchase...,20 00). Completion of this project would expand even more the scope of municipal conjunctive water use in the region.

The City of Lubbock provides yet another example of conjunctive water use. Some of the city's sewage effluent is used for irrigation on a nearby farm. The water table of the Ogallala aquifer under this farm is quite high due to percolation and reliance on wastewater rather than the underlying Ogallala aquifer for irrigation. Lubbock pumps groundwater from the farm back to the city's northern edge to provide water for the Canyon Lakes, a chain of small recreational lakes in Yellowhouse Canyon (Headstream et al., 1976). In addition, some of this reclaimed water is used to irrigate other public use areas.

4. Conclusions

In this paper, underground water and surface water in streams are identified as the primary water sources used conjunctively by cities on the Texas High Plains, and state water law pertaining to these legal classes of water has been summarized. Under Texas law, groundwater can be used by private landowners and well-recognized private property rights pertain to it under the absolute ownership doctrine which still prevails over most of the state, including the High Plains. Conversely, surface water in streams has been appropriated by the state and thus can be managed by the state in the public interest and permits for its use can be issued. The resulting diverse private and public rights in interconnected water resources make coordinated management of the total water resource considerably more difficult, but it is obvious that they do not preclude conjunctive use.

Unlike the closely interconnected surface and groundwater in the Edwards aquifer region in South Central Texas and as has been shown, the hydrologic connections between the different water resources used conjunctively on the High Plains are not readily apparent. An example is the use of Canadian River water and Ogallala groundwater by CRMWA member cities such as Lubbock. Lake Meredith lies about 160 miles north of Lubbock and the city's groundwater reserves in the Sandhills are 60 to 70 miles northwest of the city. When groundwater from distant Roberts and Hutchinson counties becomes integrated into the CRMWA system this will expand the distance to water sources still farther. In addition, these sources of water are located many miles apart from each other. Possible integration of still more Ogallala groundwater from Hartley or Roberts counties into the distribution system adds still more distance. The Canadian River does not provide recharge to any of the existing or potential Ogallala well fields, nor does the aquifer contribute significant baseflow to the Canadian River or other High Plains streams or affect the water supply impounded in Lake Meredith. Thus, any hydrologic connections between the surface and groundwater used by High Plains cities are quite tenuous at best.

It would seem to be inappropriate to bring the diverse and widely-scattered water sources used by cities on the Texas High Plains for municipal supply under a more centralized management system like that imposed on the Edwards aquifer. To do so would surely infringe on well-established and well-recognized private property rights, especially as it pertains to Ogallala groundwater. Where it is legally, technologically or economically feasible to make conjunctive use of this semiarid region's limited water resources, local communities are already doing so, and such practices are actively encouraged by the UWCDs and other local districts and authorities. The present institutional system, favored for so long by Texas courts and the Legislature, seems destined to continue, achieving what many believe to be the most efficient, flexible and appropriate institutional arrangement for the unique hydrologic conditions on the semiarid Texas High Plains.

(*.) Tel.: +1-806-742-3838; fax: +1-806-742-1137.

E-mail address: (O.W. Templer).


(1.) Conjunctive use and management of water simply refers to the situation where water in two or more phases of the hydrologic cycle, in this case groundwater and surface water in streams, are used or managed together as an integrated resource. Normally, water resources used conjunctively are hydrologically in close proximity and closely interconnected. As will be shown, such is not the case on the Texas High Plains.


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Author:Templer, Otis W.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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