How Can Property Rights in Subsurface Water Work in West Texas?

Michael Giberson

Ogallala Aquifer
Ogallala Aquifer image from High Plains Underground Water Conservation District #1 website

Texans who have drawn there water supplies from the vast but shrinking Ogallala Aquifer are engaged in a complex process of clarifying and/or renegotiating a more exact notion of just what rights they have to access the resource. A story in the Sunday Lubbock Avalanche-Journal provides an update.

Some clever “enviropreneurs”, to invoke a term coined by PERC, have devised methods to use markets to improve the use of water. See “How the market can keep streams flowing” for an example of a program working in the Pacific Northwest. But that example deals with surface water; groundwater presents greater difficulties for measuring and monitoring resource stocks and flows.

Groundwater gets some mention in this article by Gary Libecap on “Water Woes” in the American West, but it looks like a complete groundwater rights system remains to be developed.

Metering water use will be a part of a solution. Palm Springs, California has experimented with smart metering for water use with some time-of-day pricing – partly to economize on electric power use but also to encourage conservation of water. Clearly a different kind of application than West Texas needs, but it suggests some possibilities.

Has anyone put together a groundwater rights system that works on a large scale, or is this still a grand opportunity waiting for the right enviropreneur?

5 thoughts on “How Can Property Rights in Subsurface Water Work in West Texas?

  1. G/w rights are no necessarily the right tool for this problem. They imply a cap and trade mentality that may not fit hydrological characteristics. A g/w tax can be used to maintain sustainability in one or more aquifers. (I’m writing a paper on taxes in the NL now…)

  2. How about a groundwater tax where “they pay it to themselves,” with payers and payees being the entities with rights to the subsurface water. Pay based on use, be paid based on share of the water rights. Start the tax very low and tick up to the desired level.

    Identifying size of current rights might be a little bit of a problem. Not all surface acres are equal. As one of the news stories said, some farmers paid a premium for land with relatively sufficient access to groundwater supplies; presumably others received a discount for land that no longer has good access. Seems like an allocation of rights would reflect the implicit water access that has been, in some sense, paid for. Sorting that out would be difficult.

  3. I’m not sure what local municipal water treatment plants do with treated wastewater, but under current law it seems like returning it to the aquifer would leave much of it to migrate to other owners. If there was some way they could get credit for replenishing the aquifer it might make sense, otherwise they may do better trying to reuse the treated water more directly.

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