The Coming Plunder of the Edwards Aquifer?

Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based public-interest group, is starting a monthly series of reports about how public assets are being misused for private gain. The “Watch Your Assets” series begins with a report, “‘Til Your Well Runs Dry,” about the sell-off of the Edwards Aquifer in Central Texas. The report describes how an invaluable water resource is being commodified and given over to politically connected permit holders, who in turn want to loosen regulatory protections in order to extract more water than is ecologically prudent.

The 1993 law creating the Edwards Aquifer Authority capped total water permits at 450,000 acre-feet of water per year and stipulated that this cap be cut to 400,000 acre-feet by 2008. But the Authority and many of its top permit-holders are trying to raise the cap to 549,000 acre-feet ? about 224,000 more acre-feet than were pumped out in 2005.

The problem sketched by the report is a familiar one: signs of political influence-peddling and a lack of transparency. As water becomes a valuable commodity, the big guys mobilize to make a killing. Except that the resource at stake is a fragile and finite body of fresh water that should be treated as a commons, not a mere commodity. It’s important for everyone, now and in the future. And it’s especially important for central Texas ecosystems.

Lauren Reinlie, the Project Director, writes that major permit-holders are lavishing campaign contributions on legislators and Authority board members, with an eye to obtaining authorization to extra more water from the aquifer. By turning the water into a commodity, permit holders are able to use their connections and campaign contributions to help make more money from the aquifer — while making life harder for everyone else, according to the report:

Fifteen families control at least 11 percent of EAA-permitted water. Yet in 2005 just two of these families pumped more than half of their permitted water supplies. This huge water surplus makes them the go-to people for water-starved municipalities.

Big money! Yet the reality is that the Edwards Aquifer is worth more as a commons — ecologically and economically — than it is as the private property of permit holders. The report states:

The Edwards Aquifer’s total value vastly exceeds the market value that it represents to private pumpers, says Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. “The value comes from the discharge in the springs and the value of the downstream flows,” says Kramer, whose organization was a plaintiff in the lawsuit that prompted the Legislature to create the EAA. If the aquifer were runs dry, the springs will dry up, rivers will lose their flow and the public would lose access to this crucial water system.

I’ll pass along future reports by the Watch Your Assets project. They promise to be good.