Untangling Texas water rights is no easy task. Water ownership depends largely on where the water is located – underground, on the surface or in the sea – and each source is regulated differently.
Texas operates under the old common-law principle of the Rule of Capture, meaning that the owner of the soil owns the water beneath it.
Landowners can drill for water and capture it for any purpose that isn’t wasteful or malicious. Since water flows underground, this rule is sometimes called the “law of the biggest straw.”
Properties within certain special districts, however, are subject to rules dictating well spacing and pumping.
When groundwater emerges in springs, it becomes surface water. State law allows landowners to keep up to 200 acre-feet of this water for domestic and agricultural purposes and, in some cases, wildlife management use.
The state owns all waters flowing on its surface. It also owns offshore lands and waters out to the “Three Marine League Line” (about 10.3 statute miles) in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) issues and manages permits for surface water use.
These permits are based on a “first in time, first in right” principle. Those with the oldest permits are first in line to use water up to their limit.
According to the TCEQ water rights database, of the more than 10,000 currently active permits, the earliest “priority date” goes back to 1731; more than 100 date back to the 19th century.
The following districts and authorities may be created under existing general water law or by a special state law that endows them with unique powers. Many districts generate revenue by selling services or charging user fees. Many also can issue bonds. Only a few have the power to levy taxes, a power granted by voters within the district. All are governed either by locally elected officials or their appointees, and must allow public access to their official records and meetings.
These districts have different powers, but most can place limits on well spacing and the withdrawal of groundwater, particularly if the water is to be transported outside the district.
An alliance of several districts sharing a common aquifer. They share resources and aquifer management duties.
Areas of the state with critical groundwater problems.
Three "watermaster" programs enforce surface water rights for nine Texas river basins.
The state's largest regional water owners and managers, controlling up to 70 percent of the state’s surface water. Collectively, Texas' 19 river authorities own rights to 11.3 million acre-feet.
Texas river authorities:
The Brazos River Authority, created in 1929, was the nation's first river authority.
Texans get their tap water from a variety of utilities. City-dwellers in particular may obtain water from a municipality, a nonprofit utility or a for-profit water company.
Cities and towns sometimes own water rights. They may sell water purchased from a wholesaler such as a river authority, buy groundwater from a landowner or drill on city-owned land.
These may use either surface or groundwater, or both.
Usually formed by land developers in suburban or exurban areas where municipally owned utilities do not exist.
These have broad authority to:
May provide water and wastewater services, usually for a fee, but do not have the power to levy taxes.