Groundwater, Policy, Politics and Land Prices in the Texas Hill Country

Posted by Marilou Torres on Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 at 10:30am.

In Part I of this series, we took a close look at how the popularity of Texas hill country land and the empowering of Groundwater Conservation Districts (GCD) in 2001 marked the beginning of the run up in land prices statewide.

Now it’s time to take a look at the underlying resources and the politics that to this day, effect the value and usability of Texas hill country land.  

Before we dig in, it helps to understand the broken slab and broken pipes geological nature of the Texas hill country, illustrated to some degree in the following map of major Texas aquifers:  

Major Aquifers in Texas | Legacy Broker Group

Of particular interest to landowners in the Texas hill country are the violet and blue Trinity and Edwards aquifers.  

Outflows along and from the from the base of the Balcones Escarpment form many of the most famous and prolific springs in the state. The natural springs of Texas best illustrate the health, and need for protection of, our underground aquifers.  

Consider this: In Gunnar Brune’s seminal work “Springs of Texas” (1981), 281 major and historically significant fresh-water springs were identified. Four of these springs were designated “very large” springs with outflows of 100 cfs. Today, only two of the original four maintain the “very large” status: Comal Springs in Comal County and San Marcos Springs in Hays County. Of the 31 springs classified as “large”, only 17 remain today. (editor’s note: from a pricing standpoint, the “Springs of Texas” is suitable to enjoy with or instead of a bottle of 18 year old Macallan Single Malt).  

It is likely that the legal principle, of the “rule of capture” established via precedent by the Texas Supreme Court in 1904 is one of three contributing factors contributing to the diminishment of Texas springs in the past decades.  

Population growth in the Texas hill country is another obvious contributing factor. As developers and landowners sought to help fulfill the dreams of a “home in the country” for those looking for a quiet place to call their own; ranches were cut up and land parcels were subdivided into small acreage tracts, ranchettes, and large lot subdivisions on which the new owners were allowed to drill a water well and practice the “rule of capture.”  

When, in 2001,  the Texas State Legislature empowered existing Groundwater Conservation Districts to limit or alter the “rule of capture” via rules promulgated by the GCD, the first steps were taken to preserve the integrity of the aquifers. Note that 2001 also marked the same year that land prices in Texas began a steep climb from the trends of earlier years (insert link to previous article here).  

A third, more contentious and ongoing contributing factor is the existence in Texas of “white zones” where, in the absence of an established GCD, the 1904 “rule of capture” is in full effect.  

Take a quick look at the map of existing GCDs below.

Groundwater Conservation Districts in Texas | Legacy Broker Group

See all of that white space? The white areas are the “white zones” where individuals and entities enjoy the unlimited protection of the “rule of capture” due to the lack of a regional GCD.  

Nothing better illustrates the impact of population growth, limited groundwater, free-enterprise, “rule of capture” fallout and the impact of growth near the Texas hill country than the controversy generated by a Hays County, Texas “white zone” as depicted in the map below.  

In fact, within the white zone illustrated in this map, there is an abundance of Trinity groundwater.  

It’s helpful to note that the I-35 corridor running through Hays County is one of the fastest growing areas in terms of population in the United States.    

It didn’t take the folks at Electro Purification long to understand that a line drawn from the Hays County white zone to just about anywhere along the booming I-35 corridor would easily pay for itself and its investors.   Plug “Electro Purification” into your favorite search engine to see that, even though the property owned by Electro Purification was annexed into the Barton Springs-Edwards GCD in 2015, the fight to protect the Trinity aquifer is still in full swing.  

Essentially, as illustrated by the Electro Purification controversy, the existence of “white zones” and the “rule of capture” stand as a threat to the health of aquifers throughout the state of Texas.   As landowners better understand the dynamics surrounding the scarcity of groundwater, its inevitable regulation, and the popularity of the Texas hill country, land prices will continue to climb in the Texas hill country.  

Resources and reading

Texas Water Development Board

Springs of Texas, Volume I, Gunnar Brune

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