Positions on the High Plains Water District's board of directors are on local ballots. Here's why.
The Texas High Plains Water District has candidates for its board of directors on this year’s local ballot, leaving some Lubbock voters with questions.
Making sure requirements can be met efficiently and safely with careful management of this essential resource is part of the job of the High Plains Water District, and it’s why the decision of who directs this organization is the responsibility of voters.
Permits to dig new wells are approved by the district’s board of directors, but they also establish research and development priorities, unite management in the district, and coordinate data with other groups across the area and state to develop and maintain long and short-term water conservation plans. Conservation work within the district is partly funded by an ad valorem property tax that is determined by the board.
“The board will adopt an ad valorem tax rate each year, they'll adopt a budget each year,” Jason Coleman, a manager with the High Plains Water District for nine years, said. “And then the operational part, which is we've adopted a budget, we've assessed a tax rate, now our staff needs to perform these conservation programs.”
That tax was set at $0.0046 per $100 valuation in a meeting this September, an 8.5% reduction from the previous year. That tax rate hasn’t risen since 2013.
Board directors are elected by the voters in their precinct to serve four-year terms. Precinct One covers Lubbock and Lynn counties, as well as the western part of Crosby County.
Current Precinct One Director Dan Seale did not file for re-election this year, and two candidates are running to take his seat: Lubbock real estate administrator Dustin Eggleston and Lubbock County farmer and rancher Brandon Patschke.
Their careers represent the two primary draws on groundwater in West Texas – farmers and developers – and both bring working experience to the table.
Patschke told Texas Tech Public Media he’s not a politician, but he knows the land and the people who live here. Patschke said the board so far has done “an amazing job,” adding if there's something that’ll better the land and the users of it, he’s all ears, but changing things for the district is not one of his priorities, particularly where property rights and tax rates are concerned.
“I don't know everything about it, but I'm anxious and willing to learn all about it,” Patschke said. “I think it's important for a farmer or somebody directly involved in agriculture to be out there. I just feel like we're better suited and have been for thousands of years to take care of one of our most precious resources.”
While he has generations of farming and ranching in West Texas behind him, Patschke said he’s approaching this with room to learn, and willingness to work with the other major water users in the area.
“Everybody's got to work together and it can't always be one way or another. I’m good friends with some developers,” Patschke said. “I am just a farmer. But ties go a lot deeper than just a farmer.”
Dustin Eggleston, director of land strategy with a major West Texas developer, spoke on a podcast in October with local conservative host Robert Pratt. Eggleston did not return Texas Tech Public Media’s request for comment.
Eggleston said one of his campaign priorities is protecting property rights. While he said the groundwater conservation district “is the state's preferred method of balancing property rights with conservation” of the aquifers, Eggleston believes “we cannot compromise property rights for conservation.”
“The truth is we cannot conserve our way into more water,” Eggleston said. “The water district is well poised to facilitate sound research for the development of alternative water resources.”
Research, as well as groundwater education, Eggleston said, is “a vital component” to the long-term stability of groundwater supply.
“Collaboration with experts, groundwater users, particularly those in agriculture, homeowners, local municipalities, we really need all hands on deck, because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” Eggleston said. “And it's going to require collaboration to find those long-term solutions.”
Board Vice President Brad Heffington of Precinct Two, and Secretary/Treasurer Ronnie Hopper of Precinct Five, also have terms expiring this year, but both will now serve third terms as their races went uncontested.
Terms for Board President Lynn Tate of Precinct Four and Tony Beauchamp of Precinct Three end in 2024.
While it’s up to voters to decide who will take the leadership position for the area, Coleman and his team at the Water District will continue educating citizens of West Texas on efforts to protect this resource.
“While we may interact most frequently with people that do have their individual wells for whatever their business or home needs are, the fact of the matter is that conservation is important for all of us, because groundwater is a component of the supply that is used here in the community,” Coleman said.
More on the High Plains Water District
Beneath the surface of the plains of the Texas Panhandle sits three aquifers. They serve as almost exclusive sources of water for residents and the main agricultural economic providers for this area – cotton, corn and cattle – who depend on it to survive.
The Ogallala Aquifer alone is the largest aquifer in the United States. About a quarter of all irrigated land in the country sits on top of the system and millions across eight states rely on it, including Lubbock and Amarillo.
In 1951, the Texas Legislature established a boundary around 13 Caprock counties to regulate and develop plans for the conservation of that groundwater in the aquifers. This area, the first and the largest in the state of Texas, is known as the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District.
Jason Coleman, from the High Plains Water District, is proud of the role his organization has played in the history of statewide conservation efforts.
“Going back to the late 1940s, the State of Texas and influential people at that time, said, ‘Wouldn't it be good if we addressed conservation of groundwater, with some type of management attached to it?’” Coleman said. “Thus became a new method of managing groundwater, and promoting conservation and associated things that we do, through what was called the Groundwater Conservation Districts Act and our organization was the very first one that was created as a result of that.”
Coleman said the efforts beginning in the High Plains region speak to the emphasis West Texans have historically given to conservation.
“There's a number of colleagues that we have, as other groundwater conservation districts have been established within the state,” Coleman said. “But the state legislature has said that these local groundwater conservation districts are the state's preferred method of groundwater management.”
Now expanded to cover 16 counties and 7.5 million acres from Amarillo to Lubbock, the organization monitors water level measurements and quality, as well as new irrigation for towns and farmers. According to the 2022 Texas State Water Plan, those farms and cities are the two biggest users of groundwater in the area, by a large margin.
The district contributes data to the Texas Water Development Board, which published the 2022 plan regarding the future of water across the state, mapping out the next 50 years of needs from a “ground up” perspective. Assessments from the locally-focused districts and plans they implement at smaller increments of five years develop how state officials set expectations for the extended future. According to the TWDB, experts are predicting a steady population influx to more than 484,000 people in Lubbock county by the year 2070.
“We have developed the sophistication to narrow down datasets to a smaller level than just the water district or even just the county,” Coleman said. “And so we can go to the spot that you care about most, and say what was the change in that area in the last year, the last five or whatever it may be.”
For the state as a whole, about half of Texas’ water supply comes from surface sources such as rivers and reservoirs. They’re facing concerns of their own, as Texas water storage was down in October and the Rio Grande river basin reservoirs experienced a historic drop in August. With demand expected to increase and supply expected to fall by 18% across the state, the economic consequences of severe drought could total over $150 billion in the next 50 years without new water sources.
On top of the Caprock, the water comes from underground, and while data from the district feeds into the long-term statewide plans, Coleman said his focus on the future of water in West Texas starts at much smaller scales: “If you were to say in 1951, as our district first began operating, what is your plan for 2001? You know, what a daunting task, right?”
A major issue with relying on groundwater is it isn’t quickly restored. The West Texas portion of the Ogallala is primarily refilled by playa lakes with an estimated recharge between a quarter of an inch, to 2.25 inches per year. With that kind of variability, Coleman said a general rule is recharge can be calculated by a fraction of the amount that's used. But in many instances, the owner of the surface land owns the groundwater in the sediment beneath it, so there’s a balance required with respect to legal property rights in the management side of conservation work.
“We've had support for a number of different programs that groups specifically focus on playa basins and the restoration of that basin to the functionality that provides the most benefit to the landowner,” Coleman said. “We have, in various studies over the years, seen that in the vicinity of playa basins, the recharge is of some magnitude higher than it is the further away you get from playa.”
While it varies across the entire span of the aquifer, experts say the water level in the southern portion of the Ogallala is declining. It’s estimated around 95% of water pumped from the aquifer is used for irrigated agriculture and livestock. Communications director for the High Plains Water District, Stephanie Brady, said multiple factors can affect that in the long and short term, including severe drought conditions.
“If we're going through a drought, they can't water their crops, it's going to cost more to grow something and then if somebody comes along and said, ‘I want to buy this property and build a housing development, I'll give you this amount,’ it kind of sounds better than trying to keep struggling farming,” Brady said.
The state’s plan currently expects a 21% decrease in demand from agriculture and irrigation by 2070, due to technological innovations and population shifts. Still, as the population in Lubbock County increases rapidly, the county’s overall water needs could more than quadruple in just 20 years.
The City of Lubbock has been preparing for this with water plans and supply preparations extending 100 years, even as state data shows area reservoirs at 38% at the beginning of November, a decrease from 45% at the same time last year. Despite the dip, conservation storage for Lubbock water resources remains above levels seen as recently as 2014.
Whether rural or municipal residents, Coleman said these changes shouldn’t lessen the priority people place on water conservation.
“The water that we use in town as a customer of the municipal system, a component of that is groundwater,” Coleman said. “So, is groundwater conservation important? Yes. If I'm in town, and the city is my water supplier, is groundwater conservation important? Yes.”
The High Plains Water District has made several datasets, interactive maps and even tips on how to water your yard publicly available on their website at HPWD.org.