Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Our Desired Future Condition (Chihuahuan Rice?)

Chihuahuan Rice

November 9, 2014
by Sharlene Leurig

Jeff Williams in a field of Teff grass on Fort Stockton's Clayton Williams Farms.

In mid-September, Sarah Wilson and I found ourselves standing in a rice field in West Texas. This was both an experimental crop and a political demonstration by Jeff Williams, whose family is the largest non-municipal groundwater owner in the state of Texas. 
Jeff's dad, Clayton Williams, Jr., has been consolidating land in the Belding Draw since the 1970s, when farms across West Texas buckled as the price of natural gas soared and cotton slumped. Belding Draw is where the "big water" is, a natural bathtub where runoff from the Glass Mountains backs up against the chalky buttes along I-10. Even as alfalfa and cotton farming across Pecos County--a good piece of it on the Williams farm--dried up the springs and the irrigation wells at the aquifer's edge, the big water remained in the Belding Draw. 
Today, Williams holds permits for nearly 50,000 acre-feet of water in the Edwards-Trinity aquifer. That's enough to pump about 35 million gallons of water a day during growing season and still leave room to spare (that's about a third of a winter's day of water consumption in Austin).


Jeff, who returned to West Texas a few years ago to oversee the family enterprise, is a data-driven farmer. After years of operating at a net loss subsidized by the Williams family's oil and gas business, the farm is now turning a profit. Jeff rebalances its portfolio each year, replacing winter wheat with alfalfa to supply Florida horse farms and Teff grass for export to Ethiopian markets in Minnesota. 
What gets grown on the Williams farm changes with the prices in the commodity markets. But its biggest commodity, without question, is the water.

Jeff explained his dad's long play as he drove us past fields of Pima cotton: "The last 30 years he’s been buying this farmland and adding onto it whenever the farms became available, because he knew that at some point the water was going to become a very valuable commodity. It’s one of the reasons that he continued the farming even though he was losing quite a bit of money on most years, to keep the water and the water right because he was afraid that if he didn’t use the water, at some point they’d take it away." In 2009, Williams applied for a transfer permit to export his water across county lines in anticipation of a deal with Midland-Odessa, whose surface reservoirs were no longer as reliable as they were once thought.  

Williams' plan to export water instead of crops was rebuffed by the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District in a permitting decision that is still grinding its way through the courts. The case is reminiscent of the court decision that secured pumping on the Williams' land more than 60 years ago, as many have observed, Jeff among them: "You know, he’s old school, so he’s still in the frame of Rule of Capture is Rule of Capture. His dad fought over it and now he’s having to fight over it." That court case, Middle Pecos Irrigation District v. Williams, et al., in which Clayton Williams, Sr. was one of more than a dozen defendants, affirmed the Rule of Capture, granting landowners the right to capture the groundwater beneath their property regardless of the effect on adjacent lands or streams. In the past half century the state Legislature has authorized the creation of groundwater districts to limit pumping through permits. Williams’ case hinges on his argument that the Middle Pecos district has overstepped its regulatory purview by prohibiting the export of water for which the district has already permitted production. 
Jeff Williams in his experimental field of rice.

As his father pursues his lawsuit against the district, Jeff has undertaken his own form of protest. On a corner of the the farm lined by neat rows of tens of thousands of pecan trees on a neighboring property, Jeff showed us a small plot of his latest crop—rice: "I thought it would be interesting to show I could grow rice in the Chihuahuan Desert, but I can’t sell water to people who really need it." Rice is an extremely water-intensive crop, even compared to pecans and alfalfa, requiring around 3 to 4 times as much water per acre. “It takes 5,000 gallons of water to make one 65-pound bale of alfalfa and roughly 175,000 per ton. And you know we’re shipping hay to Florida, to New Mexico and all over the state of Texas,” Jeff explained as we drove along an irrigation ditch at sundown. “Is it quite logical to grow high water use crops in the Chihuahuan Desert? No, probably not. But we have a perfect climate, the water is here. So what do you use it for? Do you let it sit in the ground or do you use it or [let it] possibly go out in a stream, or do you use it for a commercial purpose? And we’re using it for a commercial purpose.” 
To keep weeds at bay, rice demands 3 to 4 times the water of the other crops on the Clayton Williams Farms. Only a few acres had been dedicated to this experiment, with thousands more cultivating alfalfa, cotton and Teff bound for New Mexico, Florida and beyond.


Sarah and I had come to Fort Stockton to understand what the world looks like from the perspective of a groundwater owner intent on defending his private property. Texas is one of only two states in the country that governs groundwater under the Rule of Capture (the other, in a case of strange bedfellows, is California; Arizona did away with Rule of Capture in 1980). The recently reelected Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Nathan Hecht, made clear in 2012 when delivering the court’s unanimous opinion in Edwards Aquifer Authority v. McDaniel that groundwater, like oil and gas, is the property of the landowner before it is pumped, meaning that even reasonable regulations to limit pumping may require financial compensation for the value lost. Should Middle Pecos GCD’s permit denial be found to be a taking of Williams’ property, the compensation required may be substantial, easily reaching 8 figures.
Short of sweeping legislative reform to redefine groundwater as the property of the State of Texas (as surface water currently is defined, and as groundwater is defined in most Western states) or reallocation of groundwater as a defined share of a common pool (as in Arizona), our ability to manage water for the millions of Texans who depend on this shared resource will have to defer to the rights presently accorded groundwater owners.

Clayton Williams Farms is one of a few large farming operations consolidated from the hundreds that once grew alfalfa and vegetables in Pecos County.

 The purpose of Our Desired Future is to tell the human story of water in Texas at the beginning of the 21st century in a way that allows us to see beyond the biases and assumptions we each bring to the world. Producing this project is certainly forcing me to contend with many of my own. As we drove past irrigation pivots half a mile in length and stood in front of pumps out of which each minute poured 3,000 gallons of water, the truth of something Jeff said became tangible: “They gave us 40,000 plus acre-feet to irrigate with and they, when we asked for that water to export, they said no. The water is technically being exported anyway, just in the form of alfalfa.”
How do we contend with these realities--that for decades we have exported water in the form of cattle and crops and manufactured products, and yet we prevent the export of water in its liquid form from where it is stored to where it might be used? Can we reconcile this question—as some are attempting to do—by removing the regulatory barriers to exports without also reconciling the discord created by groundwater being both a private property right and a shared resource on which millions of Texans depend?
Since we visited Fort Stockton, the City of San Antonio has approved a deal with landowners northeast of Austin to import as much groundwater a year as the Williams family has sought to export to Midland-Odessa. It is one of the biggest groundwater export deals in the state, and the most expensive.  The coming Legislative session will see bills advanced to enable more groundwater production. Now is the time to ask, can we share more of our groundwater resources while also sustaining these resources for future generations? This is not a matter of rhetoric; I believe it is a question to which we must find our way to yes.
Our Desired Future exists to provoke these questions through stories designed to be shared and used by anyone in their own community. As we move into the editing stage, we continue to fundraise for the videos, animation and graphic design that will make these stories as visually compelling as they are insightful. We are inviting the support of corporate sponsors who want to be part of catalyzing this thoughtful dialogue. If you know of a company who would like to be part of making the story of water in Texas one of generosity, cooperation and hope, please share!


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