Artesian wells tap the confined groundwater trapped below impermeable strata beneath the surface of the earth. Natural pressure forces the water to rise, sometimes above the surface of the earth (see UNDERGROUND WATER). Although extensive drilling for artesian wells did not begin until the 1880s, in 1857 and 1858 John Pope experimented with artesian wells on the plains of West Texas, and in 1858 a bill introduced by Forbes Britton became a law authorizing the drilling of public artesian wells on the road between San Antonio and Laredo. These early experiments were typical of the many mistakes made, through lack of knowledge, in an effort to secure water in the arid portion of the state. The artesian-well area is largely confined to the Coastal Plain east of the Balcones Escarpment, although there have been other isolated artesian areas, most notable of which were located at El Paso, Fort Stockton, and Balmorhea. By 1897 there were 458 flowing and 506 nonflowing wells in the Black and Grand Prairie regions, somewhat fewer on the Coastal Plain, and none on the High Plains.
Around the turn of the century there were six artesian districts in Texas: Coastal Prairie system, Hallettsville system, Carrizo system, Black and Grand prairies system, Trans-Pecos Basin system, and Stevens County and Jack County systems. At that time the city of Galveston received its water from approximately thirty-three artesian wells, and Houston had about 100. In 1905 the area comprising most of South Texas from twenty miles south of Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande valley was referred to as the Artesian Belt. Farmers were just beginning to realize the agricultural potential of South Texas and relied on irrigation from artesian wells to provide water to crops. In a 1905 edition of Farm and Ranch magazine one article stated that 200 wells were in operation, ranging in depths from 600 to 800 feet and averaging flows from 200 to 600 gallons per minute. Wells were also touted in promotional brochures, such as the ad for the town of Sarita, Texas, which estimated that an artesian well would irrigate 100 to 200 acres. Costs for digging those wells ranged from $1,000 to $1,500.
Water from artesian wells was included in the general irrigation act of 1913 (see WATER LAW), and in May 1931 the legislature passed a law to prevent the waste of artesian water, which had become an important source of water supply for numerous cities and irrigation projects. Throughout the later part of the twentieth century more cities looked to other options for municipal water such as the use of surface reservoirs. Though the use of wells remained the property of the individual owner, increased government regulation such as the issuing of permits and possibilities of restrictions became the focus of debate. According to Texas law a person can drill an artesian well for domestic or stock purposes, but the well should be properly cased. Records of depth, thickness, and the types of strata penetrated should be kept. Reports of new artesian wells are made to the Texas Water Commission. Those using wells for other than domestic needs must submit an annual report regarding the well level, quantities used, and methods of use.