Paper Water Rights Deceptive

Jul 25, 2009 | San Antonio Express-News by Jim Blackburn | Related Press

Central Texas is experiencing one of the worst natural droughts of the last 50 years. It’s dry and we all know it — we feel it. And during such times, it makes a lot of sense to seriously question our state and local water policies. When it rains, we have enough for all of our dreams. It is when we are dry that reality appears.

There is a business case to be made regarding the real availability of water. It does none of us any good to recruit industry and development if there is no water to serve it, or if those of us already here are cut back. Good business practice requires sound water supplies.

So as a state, how sound is our water? In the 1950s and ’60s, thousands of paper water right certificates were issued on our major river systems. These surface water rights are considered totally independent of the seeps and springs that provide the base flow of our rivers because Texas law separates ground and surface water. In spite of the massive use of groundwater that has occurred in the Hill Country and throughout the state — water use that has slowly but surely impacted the dependability of the base flow — we have never revisited these rights.

These paper water rights can be exceedingly misleading. There are many ways that games can be played, that rights can be created, that water can be legally taken from neighbors and communities. By relying on paper to manage our water resources, we have the appearance of stability without adequate underpinnings or protections.

Last month, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority renewed its agreement with Exelon reserving 75,000 acre-feet of paper water rights for proposed nuclear reactors in Victoria County. This reservation is equivalent to more than 24 billion gallons of water annually from the Guadalupe River.

Parallel to selling these water rights the GBRA has issued drought warnings, requesting conservation, and was forced to more than double the amount of water being released from Canyon Lake in an effort to address the water needs of the city of Victoria down river. This release equated to approximately 42 million gallons of water for a single 24-hour period.

GBRA is simultaneously telling the residents along the Guadalupe River that they need to conserve water because of the extreme drought conditionsand that immense amounts of unused water rights exist on the Guadalupe, such that there is more than enough water for Exelon. The Guadalupe is proving to us right now that Mother Nature overrides state-issued water rights. As things stand now, I question the integrity and the validity of a system that says that more water exists in the Guadalupe River when it’s running dry.

While the current natural drought conditions may subside, we run the risk of perpetuating these conditions if we allow the Exelon project to consume such vast amounts of such a precious resource. If we allow GBRA to continue to rely on paper water, instead of real water, the current drought could become our permanent reality.

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