Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What the State Supreme Court Ruling on Water Rights Means For Texas

Reaction came fast and furious to Friday’s announcement that the Texas Supreme Court had reached a decision in The Edwards Aquifer Authority V. Burrell Day and Joel McDaniel. The case has far-reaching implications for how local water authorities can regulate the amount of groundwater a private property owner pulls from their land. It’s a decision made all the more important by the fact that much of Texas is still suffering the effects of an historic drought.

Photo Courtesy of the Lower Colorado River Authority

Tom Mason, former head of the LCRA, currently works as an attorney with Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody.

The ruling found that the Edwards Aquifer Authority could compensate Ranchers Burrell Day and Joel McDaniel for groundwater regulations that limited the amount of groundwater the two landowners pulled from their land. The Authority had argued that allowing compensation could open the floodgates to a wave of litigation from other landowners in similar cases. After Friday’s decision that assessment may bear out, said former LCRA director Tom Mason.

“I hate to say it but there probably will be a lot more litigation until this gets sorted out. It’s unfortunate, but that’s likely what’s happening. And that often occurs when we have a major Supreme Court decision like this,” Mason, who now works for the law firm Graves Dougherty Hearon and Moody, told StateImpact Texas.

While the ruling affirmed property owners rights to be compensated for regulation that limited their access to groundwater, it also reaffirmed water authorities’ ability to control water use. That left some gray area in terms of how much regulation may be acceptable and where compensation will be warranted.


related_content align=”left”]In a statement released after the decision, the Edwards Aquifer Authority pointed out that it had acted legally by seeking to limit groundwater use by the ranchers and that “the opinion leaves unresolved” whether the Authority owes compensation in this particular case. “We will await further legal review of the opinion before commenting further,” the statement concluded.

Conservation groups were quick to criticize the ruling as a hindrance to water management efforts.

“The court has done a huge disservice to everyone who has been working for proper management of the groundwater resources needed for our state’s people and our environment,” said Ken Kramer, the director of the Lone Star Sierra Club said in a press statement.

Farmers, Ranchers, laud the ruling

Groups advocating for the private property rights of Texas farmers and ranchers celebrated the ruling today, which took nearly two years for the Supreme Court to reach.

Photo Courtesy of the Texas and Southwester Cattle Raisers Associaiton.

Joe Parker is the President of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Associaiton.

“We spent a lot of time on this,” Texas Cattle Raisers Association President Joe Parker told StateImpact Texas. “[The Court has] affirmed that landowners own the groundwater in place below their land, and that it’s subject to constitutional protection in terms of property rights and that means a lot to us.”

“In Texas we’re a property rights state and just like the ownership of oil and gas is something that the landowner can count on… it also is very important for water,” Parker added.

The ruling comes on the heels of the worst single-year drought in Texas history and at a time when water policy has received more public attention than it has in decades.

When asked about the impact of the decision might have on drought management, former LCRA head Tom Mason told StateImpact Texas that the impacts would probably not be immediate, but “for anyone who was proposing new regulations they may well hesitate before they implement those in light of this decision.”

“It probably will be a while before the courts sort this out and lay out very clear guidelines in just how far you can go in regulating groundwater,” Mason added.


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