High Plains Underground Water Conservation District

By: H. Allen Anderson

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District had its origin on December 28, 1946, when delegates from fourteen West Texas counties met to oppose threatened state legislation to control groundwater. Water control legislation was defeated in 1947, but urban interests on the High Plains feared depletion and continued their pressures for regulation. Association members, led by Littlefield attorney Arthur P. Duggan, Jr., concentrated their efforts on a bill providing for limited regulatory provisions under local control. Duggan's bill, the Ground Water District Act, became state law in 1949. Duggan and others campaigned to form a water conservation district in 1951 to assure local control against the strong resistance by farmers who feared any kind of bureaucratic controls. The state's first groundwater management district was organized under the 1949 legislation. Duggan later helped organize other Panhandle and Central Texas districts. Parmer, Lubbock, and portions of Armstrong, Bailey, Castro, Cochran, Deaf Smith, Floyd, Hockley, Lamb, Lynn, Potter, and Randall counties voted to join a district. The district was composed of a five-member elected board of directors, with each of the counties electing five county committeemen to assist in operations and policy-making. The organization's initial and continued purpose has been to conserve the Ogallala aquifer.

Through the 1950s the depletion of the Ogallala continued at a high rate. It became obvious that conservation programs based on local options and voluntary cooperation failed to check depletion. Depressed prices for wheat and short-staple cotton in the 1960s added to farmers' concerns. From 1964 to 1969 acreage within the district under irrigation decreased from 3.333 million to 3.135 million, while the number of wells increased from 35,833 to 45,365 as farmers tried to augment their water supplies. There were also tendencies to utilize more efficient water sprinkler systems and increase the size of individual farms. The era of the small farmer passed as the average farm value in land and improvements reached $200,000. Yet, in contrast to the long time trend of inflation in land values, South Plains prices declined 5 percent in value between 1963 and 1965. The only bright sign in agriculture was the growth of the feedlot industry spurred by the region's bountiful harvest of grain sorghum. The United States Congress helped farmers with the Great Plains Conservation Program, enacted in 1957. Farmers paid part of the costs of projects, which included parallel terrace construction to stretch water usage, administered by the Soil Conservation Service. The installation in 1971 by the SCS of tail-water return systems, in which the federal government met 50 to 80 percent of installation costs, also attracted interest. Progress was slow in the district's recharge experiments begun in 1953, but experiments included pumping water under air pressure to reach previously untapped water sections. The air repressurization experiments, learned from the oil industry, showed an increase from a 15 percent yield relying on gravity to 49 percent with pressure, thus tripling the life of the aquifer for economic purposes.

Hale County joined HPUWCD in 1967, and by 1969 the HPUWCD had annexed to its original area parts of Crosby County and other precincts from three of its original thirteen counties. The organization's educational activities included the publication of The Cross Section, a semi-monthly newsletter which later became a monthly, but it moved increasingly into enforcing regulations and experimenting in conservation. The HPUWCD's most dramatic aid to farmers came from its support of Marvin Shurbet's suit against the United States Treasury. Shurbet and other farmers gained an IRS ruling in 1965 allowing tax deductions for water depletion allowances after the federal district and circuit court ruled in Shurbet's favor. This suit helped dispel the inexhaustible supply myth because farmers took care to measure the declining water table each year for their depletion allowances.

The suit's publicity led to the alteration of the 1965 Texas Water Plan to include the concept of water importation. Plans emerged from the Board of Water Engineers in 1961 and the newly formed Texas Water Development Board in 1965–66. South Plains farmers protested against the TWDB's finding that East Texas did not have sufficient water to transport supplies elsewhere and hoped that the Bureau of Reclamation's feasibility study of bringing water from major rivers to the north would eventually answer their needs. A more ambitious plan by a private consultant suggested use by Canada, Mexico, and the United States of water from the Missouri, Columbia, and major rivers of northwestern Canada and Alaska. Cost estimates startled all but the most optimistic believers. Planning continued through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The first Ogallala Aquifer Symposium was held in 1970; the second in 1984. Both were sponsored by the HPWD and other agencies. West Texans supported a bond issue proposal in 1969 for $3.5 billion to construct reservoirs and canals to carry East Texas river water to San Antonio and Houston, viewing the project as a first step in getting East Texas water to the High Plains. The bond issue referendum was narrowly defeated.

By the 1980s none of the water importation schemes appeared capable of realization. Since 1979 high energy and low commodity prices had reduced pressure on aquifer withdrawals, but petroleum energy prices fell sharply in 1986. The future of High Plains agriculture was uncertain despite the hopes for more efficient recovery techniques and a general awareness of conservation necessity. It should be noted that water concerns did not represent the only problem facing farmers on the High Plains: commodity prices and other economic factors also contributed to a clouding of the future for a region that had come to rely upon commercial agriculture. The HPWD's growth has continued. In 1984 the district had a network of seventy-five committees serving throughout its fifteen-county region. In the 1980s and 1990s the HPUWCD focused on measures that would extend the life of the aquifer. As an underground water district, it had the power to restrict groundwater withdrawal and implement supply management practices such as requiring permits for wells and enforcing well-spacing regulations. The district also conducted demand management activities such as a Pre-Plant Soil Moisture Survey in which soil moisture monitor sites throughout the district aided farmers in deciding what crops were appropriate to plant for each growing season. The HPUWCD also held studies into reducing pumping energy costs and held Irrigation Demonstration Days in commuities to display new water conservation techniques and equipment. Low interest loans were available to farmers to purchase water conservation equipment, and farmers could use the cost-in-water tax deduction. In addition, the district conducted educational campaigns in schools and made public information messages. The High Plains Underground Water Conservation District included a land area of 8,149 square miles. Revenue was obtained from an ad-valorem property tax on the assessed valuation of district property and from interest income on accumulated assets. District offices employed fifteen professionals operating within four areas: general management, information/education/administration, water use/conservation, and geohydrology/graphic arts.

Donald E. Green, Irrigation Frontier on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1960 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 1969). Donald E. Green, Land of the Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973). James E. Jonish, "Water Conservation Practices of the High Plains Underground Water District," Journal of the West 29 (October 1990). Richard Mason, "A Handful of Farmers: The South Plains, Politics, and Water," West Texas Historical Association Year Book 15 (1984).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

H. Allen Anderson, “High Plains Underground Water Conservation District,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 02, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/high-plains-underground-water-conservation-district.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995