Since 1949, Texas has been engaged in deliberate and legislative management of water-related needs across the state. Bills have been regularly introduced since that time, regardless of drought conditions, to operate the Texas Water Development Board and fund our supply and conservation needs through local Water Conservation Districts (WCDs). There were no fewer than 110 water-related bills filed in the 2019 session alone.
Conflict arises, as it often does in Texas, when the government attempts to augment its ability to appropriate funding, through tax dollars, for programs upon which municipalities and landowners disagree.
One such landowner is Jim Schwertner, whose family has been in agriculture since founding the town that bears his name more than 100 years ago. Schwertner owns and manages 23,000 acres of farm and grazing land in Bell, Williamson, Travis, Bastrop, and Caldwell counties and he is one of the largest livestock dealers in the nation. He knows a lot about Texas water.
A recent article in the Texas Monthly paints a bleak picture of water reserves, management, and the ongoing debate between Bell and Williamson Counties over the idea that a Water Conservation District is needed for equitable use of the Edwards Aquifer. In contrast, Schwertner says, “This is nothing more than a land grab. We aren’t short on water, there are people who just don’t want to pay for it. When I go up to just 3,000 feet in my helicopter, I see surface water everywhere, which is as common as it is critical for rural farmers because we do not have the [transfer] infrastructure that the cities do. The problem is some cities do not want to buy surface water because it is expensive.
“In either case, the answer is not more government and bureaucracy. [Senator Charles Schwertner, Sonny Kretzschmar and I] got proactive and built a pipeline from Stillhouse to Granger Lake and enabled cities like Jarrell and Salado to tap into it. We did such a good job on the project, we have so much water, we have trouble finding customers to buy it.”
Schwertner is referring to the Lone Star Regional Water Authority, created by the Texas Legislature in 2011 to design, finance, construct and operate wholesale water infrastructure projects for public and private retail water providers. The Authority is a private company and does not operate from taxpayer funds, unlike a Water Conservation District that can—and in many places, does—tax landowners for the water on their property as well as dictating how much they are allowed to pump from it.
Schwertner added that the Texas Supreme Court affirmed, more than once, that landowners have water rights on their own land; i.e., the water belongs to them. He believes WCDs are a government means to create programs and, unconstitutionally, collect taxes for its own sake. “It’s not really about water,” Schwertner says, “It’s about people justifying their jobs. It could be a turtle shortage for all I know, as long as they can find a way to tax my land for it.”
County Judge Bill Gravell affirmed the notion that the creation of a Conservation District amounts to little more than too much government infringing on the rights of landowners and said, “Water rights are one of those things that, in old Texas, landowners would stand on the edge of their property with a firearm to defend. I want the people of Williamson County to know that I believe this to be nothing more than a new tax and as long as I am County Judge, we will not become or be part of a water conservation district. In short, no new taxes.”
Georgetown Mayor Dale Ross is in full agreement that the legal system has long since settled the argument that favors property rights; “This is the government creating tax revenue and I don’t believe it is helpful to have another taxing entity in Williamson County, especially if the residents of Georgetown will be expected to pay more. The courts previously determined that whoever owns the land owns the water—if they have not sold the rights to it—so a conservation board is unnecessary here.”
THIS IS TEXAS, WHERE YOU DON’T MESS WITH MY WIFE OR MY WATER.JIM SCHWERTNER
Sonny Kretzschmar, known to many as “Mr. Water,” grew up and owns a home in Bell County. He has worked at all levels, in many regions, for soil and water conservation for more than 40 years.
Kretzschmar agrees; “We don’t need more government, we need more water. We are a mud-and-dust state that goes from dry to flood and we must be willing and able to warehouse more water than we have in the past. Unfortunately, crises have to get tough before people are willing to open their billfold.”
As an expert, he believes ground water districts are an excellent means of managing water in some areas, and perhaps a few individual landowners may benefit, but in Williamson County it is “…too high handed. The Texas Constitution provides for Districts created by local governing bodies. For the state to mandate it is out of order.”
Schwertner also has science on his side. “People in Bell County want us to have a Conservation District because our more-populous areas get water from the same aquifer and they don’t think it is fair. But saying Williamson County is using up too much water doesn’t explain how Bell County is able to sell some of their water to Waco.” The Waco Tribune Herald reported that Bell County sells water to Killeen, Ft Hood, Copperas Cove and Belton.
“We also have to examine the aquifer itself. It is limestone, which is porous, so even if Williamson County stopped using it entirely, it wouldn’t suddenly be available to people in Bell; the water will naturally leech into the ground and go downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s use it or lose it.”
Kretzschmar added, “There may be some logic in taxing the amount pumped out, but we already have ad valorum taxes based on the value of the land. All a groundwater district does is limit and handcuff people who are already paying taxes to support existing water programs all over the state. In this case [a WCD] is not an answer.”