AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Quite literally, the High Plains is supported physically and economically by sprawling aquifers that extend beneath vast prairies and bustling communities. Every shower, glass of drinking water, community pool, irrigated field, and manufacturing project depends on available water underground and on the surface.
However, in the midst of years impacted by drought, raging wildfires, and questions of ownership and management, the future of water on the High Plains is anything but secure.
As community members, environmental experts, and lawmakers work to support sustained access to water across the region, MyHighPlains.com has compiled an overview to answer a few common questions and misconceptions: Where does the water come from? Who controls it? What issues does the region face – and what can anybody do?
Where does it come from?
Water on the High Plains most often comes from surface water or groundwater sources, such as Lake Meredith and the Ogallala Aquifer.
“Surface water” refers to water sources a person can see on the earth’s surface – these can include rivers, lakes, bays, ponds, reservoirs, springs, creeks, wetlands, marshes, and other bodies of water.
Across the Texas Panhandle, rivers and lakes are the most common surface water sources. As noted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the panhandle boasts thousands of “playa lakes,” dips in the prairies or plains where rainwater is collected. In years of solid rainfall, those lakes tend to gather around three or four feet of water, evaporating into the air over time or filtering through the soil to recharge aquifers.
Specifically, the High Plains’ larger surface water sources include Lake Meredith, as well as rivers such as the Red River, Pecos River, Canadian River, Colorado River, and Brazos River.
As described by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), as well as shown in reports such as the City of Amarillo’s 2022 Water Quality Report, the majority of drinking water and general tap water in cities comes from surface water. For example, Amarillo cited Lake Meredith as its main surface water supply, which blends in during treatment processes to make up 64% of the available drinking water.
In 2019, according to the Texas Water Development Board, the majority of surface water usage in the state of Texas focused on municipal purposes (tap water for cities and towns) and irrigation for agriculture.
Unfortunately, surface water sources tend to be the most immediately and visibly impacted by overuse and drought. According to The Tulsa District Water Control Data System, as of July 6 the lake’s water levels were reported to be nearly 60 feet below normal. Further, according to the TWDB, Lake Meredith was only around 31% full as of July 6.
Although the decrease in Lake Meredith’s water level, according to TWDB historical data, does not appear to meet the extreme lows of the early 2010s, recovery never met pre-2002 water levels. Sustained drought across the High Plains and a lower ‘peak’ level than its previous average means there is less distance to fall for the levels to return to critical lows.
“Groundwater” refers to water that gathers under the earth’s surface, often out of immediate view. Sources of groundwater often include aquifers that feed wells and springs. Wells can be drilled into aquifers to pump water, and they are usually refilled (or “recharged”) through precipitation such as steady rainfall. As mentioned earlier, this tends to happen on the High Plains in years of plentiful rainfall when above-ground playa lakes are filled with water that soaks into the soil.
As explained by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), aquifers tend to be confined or unconfined depending on their surrounding soil and rock.
Confined aquifers can be created by porous rock layers becoming tilted in the earth, surrounded by a layer of less-porous rock both above and below the porous layer. In the case of a confined aquifer, the surrounding rocks confine the pressure into the porous rock and its water.
When a well is drilled into a confined aquifer, the released pressure can sometimes be enough to shoot the water up to the surface without the need for a pump. Wells with that sort of pressure system are often called “artesian” wells.
Unconfined aquifers, meanwhile, are aquifers that are not surrounded by layers of less-porous rock that builds up pressure. Water can more easily seep from the ground surface directly above the aquifer; for example, on the High Plains, the aforementioned playa lakes across the region are more likely to recharge unconfined aquifers, because the water they hold will only need to soak through the upper layers of porous soil and rock.
When a well is drilled into an unconfined aquifer, its water level usually matches the height of the water table – thus, as shown in the above USGS diagram, they are often referred to as “water table” wells. Further, because of a lack of natural pressure, water table wells may need pumps in order to draw water up to the surface.
On the High Plains, the Ogallala Aquifer and the Seymour Aquifer are the ‘major’ aquifers extending across the region. Both of them are unconfined and rest above ‘minor’ aquifers, and Ogallala serves to provide the majority of groundwater used in the region.
As noted in available TWDB data, the aquifers that impact the High Plains include:
- Ogallala (major, unconfined)
- Seymour (major, unconfined)
- Dockum / Santa Rosa (minor, both confined and unconfined)
- Rita Blanca (minor, mostly confined)
The Ogallala, Dockum, and Rita Blanca aquifers combine to create the High Plains Aquifer System. The Dockum and Rita Blanca aquifers are both located below Ogallala, except for some instances where Ogallala has been eroded away, and all three are hydraulically connected.
After it enters an aquifer, as explained by the USGS, water moves slowly toward lower-lying places until it is eventually discharged from springs, seeps into streams, or is taken up by a well. However, water movement is also dependent on how permeable the ground is around the aquifer; some aquifers allow water to move several meters in a day in some areas, while others are so impassable that water can only naturally travel a few centimeters.
The Ogallala Aquifer is not only the largest in Texas, but the United States as a whole, and provides more water for users than any other aquifer in the state. Further, as reported by the TWDB, Ogallala’s water is critical to the economy of the High Plains, as the vast majority of the amount pumped is used for irrigated agriculture.
In 2019, according to the Texas Water Development Board, the vast majority of groundwater usage in the state of Texas focused on irrigation. While 95% of the Ogallala Aquifer’s pumped water is used for irrigation, the statewide average for aquifer water usage for that purpose is around 73%.
Groundwater is also used for municipal purposes. For instance, water from well fields and the four regional aquifers are mixed in during treatment processes to make up around 36% of the tap water in Amarillo.
However, despite its critical nature – and perhaps due to it – groundwater withdrawals from the Ogallala Aquifer often exceed the amount that it can recharge, and the water levels have seen a fairly steady decrease over time which can be exacerbated by the ongoing drought. A lack of rain replenishing surface water supply inevitably ‘trickles down’ into a lack of water soaking through the soil to replenish underlying aquifers.
Who owns the water?
Both surface water and groundwater across the High Plains, as noted previously, are invaluable resources for the economy and day-to-day life. However, alongside environmental factors such as ongoing drought conditions that cause concerns for the water sources and their stability, state laws about who can use the water and how also impact the region’s keystone water sources and their futures.
In the state of Texas, according to Texas A&M University (TAMU), regulations addressing water ownership are historically lax and vary between the type of water source in question.
Surface water ownership and usage rights in Texas are recognized based on two different legal doctrines and continue to evolve. Texas guidelines for surface water are based on the Riparian Doctrine and the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, which TAMU noted were merged together by the Texas Legislature in 1967.
- The Riparian Doctrine was based on English common law, following the concept that private water rights are tied to the ownership of land bordering surface water sources such as natural rivers or streams. Under that doctrine, landowners have a right to use whatever surface water is connected to their property as long as the use is reasonable compared to other riparian owners. Riparian owners have the right to use the water as long as they own the land next to it.
- For example, if two people own land along the same river or stream, each of them has the right under the Riparian Doctrine to use the river water for their own purposes. However, if one person uses so much water that the river runs dry or redirects the flow away from their neighbor’s land, they could be liable to lose their ownership rights to the water.
- The Prior Appropriation Doctrine is controlled by statute and is not related to ownership when applied in western states, due to a lack of consistent rain to replenish surface water sources. Without any other rules to guide water usage, people took water from streams and rivers to use however they wanted, a practice which became known as the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation when it was legalized.
In 1967, the Texas Legislature merged the two doctrines using the Water Rights Adjudication Act. Under the act, anybody wishing to claim riparian ownership of a water source is required to file with the Texas Water Commission. Meanwhile, anybody wishing to use surface water needs to receive a “water rights” permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Groundwater ownership and usage in Texas are less regulated than surface water, according to TAMU, due to Texas’ status as a “right to capture” state. Based on the English common law of “absolute ownership,” groundwater is considered the property of whoever owns the land above it and may be used or sold as such. Because of its base in land ownership and resources for appropriation, Texas groundwater regulations are often called the “law of the biggest pump.”
- Texas courts have ruled over the years that landowners have a right to pump all the water possible from beneath their land, regardless of the effect on wells and resources of adjacent landowners. This is because legal presumption in Texas tends to say that all sources of groundwater are percolating – as in, the water is mostly soaking into the ground from above – instead of traveling through an underground river. Therefore, landowners are presumed to own underground water until it is shown that the source of the supply is a subterranean river.
- Further, regarding subterranean rivers, both stream underflow and subterranean rivers have been pointedly excluded from the definition of underground water in the Texas Water Code. That means that regulations on subterranean rivers and streams in Texas, effectively, don’t exist.
- Day-to-day, that means that a landowner in Texas can dry up a neighbor’s well without clear legal consequences. This differs in Texas from the rest of the United States, as the state has refused to adopt the idea of “reasonable use” with groundwater as it has with surface water. For the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest in the US, this can put Texas landowners and manufacturers at odds with those in neighboring states.
However, as TAMU noted, there are a few exceptions to the “absolute ownership” rule where a Texas landowner can take legal action for someone interfering with their groundwater rights:
- If a neighbor trespasses on a person’s land to remove water by drilling a well directly on the other person’s property, or by drilling a well at a “slant” on an adjoining property so that it crosses the property line extending underground.
- If there is “malicious or wanton” conduct in pumping water for the sole purpose of harming a neighboring landowner.
- If landowners waste artesian well water by allowing it to run off their land or percolate back into the water table.
- If there is contamination of water in a landowner’s well – nobody is allowed to unlawfully pollute groundwater.
- Land subsidence and surface injury resulting from negligent overpumping from neighboring lands – for instance, if a person’s harvest or soil is actively destroyed because of how their neighbor is draining water from underground sources.
However, the state of Texas has authorized the establishment of underground water conservation districts that generally are able to promote rules for conserving, protecting, recharging, and preventing the waste of underground water. Around 86% of the Ogallala Aquifer, according to the TWDB, has groundwater conservation districts. As noted by TAMU, through the majority of the Texas Panhandle, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District and the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District manage the aquifer.
With legal protections and recourse up in the air, especially regarding groundwater sources such as the Ogallala Aquifer, efforts to avoid literal rock-bottom and the resulting threat of Dust Bowl conditions above-ground have fallen mostly on the agricultural community.
As reported previously on MyHighPlains.com, more farmers in the past years have been working to restore native grasslands and alter their production methods and crop choices in an effort to conserve groundwater. The situation has grown dire enough that the United States Department of Agriculture previously listed Texas as a high-priority focus area for efforts to help farmers and ranchers reduce strain on Ogallala. Unfortunately, conditions have not appeared to much improve.
In 2022 around the Texas Panhandle, the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service noted that due to ongoing drought conditions impacting an already-fraught struggle with water, producers had to make hard decisions regarding which crops to plant and how much. TAMU’s AgriLife’s Dr. J.D. Ragland suggested that some may only raise crops on half of their normal acreage compared to previous years.
The lack of groundwater leading to less product and compounded by the increased crop damage from wildfires thus far in 2022, on top of rising rates of inflation impacting day-to-day costs, could result in an excruciating year for producers on the High Plains.
What can be done?
In the short term, the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service has offered multiple conferences and meetings in the last few months on issues such as irrigation and drought management. The service also hosts resources focused on water education, conservation, resources, and solutions for agriculture, homeowners, and communities.
Further, the USDA hosts a database for disaster resources focused on preparing for and recovering from a list of emergencies including weather events, wildfires, and drought. The Texas Department of Agriculture also offers a number of grants and services focused on agricultural producers, and resources for supplies such as finding hay for livestock.
While the future of water resources and agriculture in the western US, remains undecided, education and community-focused aid efforts remain hands-on ways that those on the High Plains can show support for one another.