Struggles with People

Modern Water Wars of the Lone Star State

Photographer: Skeeter Hagler

The term “water war” originates from numerous incidents throughout history where people literally fought and died over water supplies, or where water was used as a weapon.  Ways that this weapon could be wielded include cutting off supplies, inundating targets with floods, and poisoning sources.

In Texas, the most infamous case of violence over water occurred during the range wars of the 1880s.1  In 1883, severe drought created water and grass shortages for cattle ranchers.  Owners and leasers of large tracts of range with water supply fenced off their land, depriving small ranchers of their former access.  Public land was also fenced in the process, compounding the problem.  People found themselves fenced out or fenced in, and mail delivery, as well as travel to schools, churches, and stores, was cut off.

Fence cutting and burning became a common way to access water and grass.  At one point, this affected half the counties in Texas.  Armed bands of fence cutters, with names like the Javelinas and Blue Devils, rode at night.  At least 3 men were killed in clashes between fence cutters and landowners.

The two sides met to mend fences late that year, and agreed that fences impeding access to public land would be removed and fences barring access to travel would be gated.  Sporadic incidents of the range war continued, however.

In 1885, a Texas Ranger was killed tracking fence cutters.2  Two men were sentenced to life in prison for the murder.  In 1888, another Texas Ranger was said to have booby-trapped fences in Navarro County with dynamite that would explode if a fence was cut.  Recorded history varies about what actually happened.  One version is that the Ranger intentionally set off a few booby traps to create a scare.3  Another version is that the mere rumors of the bombs were a deterrent to future fence cutting.4  Either way, fence cutting reportedly ceased.

Texas has become relatively enlightened since the days of the range wars.  Most disputes are settled in the court house or the statehouse.  Sometimes opponents to water transfers, such as farmers with senior rights, are offered lucrative financial incentives to sell their water before disputes ever get that far.  But other times there is a deep bitterness that can last decades from the people who lost historic access to water, or in the case of reservoirs, lost family land that goes back several generations.

For today’s Texas, it’s urban vs. rural, region vs. region, state vs. state, and even international conflicts with Mexico.  Under the surface, there is also the conflict of nature vs. people, when rivers and aquifers are deprived of the life blood of entire ecosystems.

Texas urban growth will be the main driver of water demand over the next 50 years.5  The 2012 Texas Water Plan projects a population increase of 21 million people between 2010 and 2060, with 90% of them coming from six urban areas of the state.  These urban areas are expected to almost double in population in this time period.6  At the same time, municipal water consumption is expected to grow by 3.2 million acre-feet (a 72% increase), and almost all of this growth will be in these 6 urban areas.7

Growth is also simultaneously occurring in other water use sectors largely related to urban growth – manufacturing and electric generation.  The big losers in this game are:

1) crop production, which will be reduced by at least 25% over this 50-year period;8

2) the seafood industry, as well as sports fishing and recreation, which suffer when water supply is diverted;  and

3) potential growth of sparsely populated areas, whose economies will suffer from lack of water.

Urban Region Expected Population Increase Population Increase Percentage Expected Municipal Water Use Increase (Acre Feet) Water Use Increase Percentage
Dallas Metroplex 6,375,099 96% 1,370,125 91%
El Paso 1,542,824 79% 72,867 60%
Austin MSA 1,419,103 100% 228,062 95%
San Antonio MSA 1,837,187 75% 227,925 62%
Border Cities 2,306,945 142% 321,519 124%
Houston MSA 5,326,004 88% 589,757 61%
Subtotal Major Urban Areas 18,807,162 92% 2,810,255 81%
Statewide 20,935,322 82% 3,220,552 72%


Let Them Eat Grass

Austinites are prepared to pay 57 times what rice farmers downstream pay for water to grow their “crop” of grass.  Artist:Anne Woods

The Austin region is considered water rich by some standards, but a closer look is not as optimistic.  The City of Austin itself used about 145,000 acre-feet in 2010, and has water purchase contracts that can more-than-double this amount.  But to provide this water during a drought will require new expensive reservoirs, or a massive conservation effort (both urban and agricultural), or the demise of agricultural enterprise downstream.

In the 1930s, the support of agricultural communities downstream was pivotal in persuading Congress to fund the construction of the Highland Lakes reservoir system, which is managed by the regional water provider, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).  In 2012 and 2013, LCRA cut off rice farm irrigation for the first time in its history in response to extremely low lake levels brought on by drought.  The agency was trying to guard the emergency water supply of the urban populations.  Were it not for this cutback, the lakes would have fallen to historic lows.  The chart below serves as an explanation.

At full capacity, the Highland Lakes can store 2 million acre-feet.  (An acre foot is enough to annually supply about 3 average Austin single-family households.)  On July 12, 2013, the lakes held 720,000 acre-feet.

If Austin consumed its average use of water from the lakes between 2009 and 2011 over the next year, the lakes would only hold only 664,000 acre-feet.9,10

Austin has enough water under contract to more than double its current use.  If this were subtracted from lake volumes, it would take the lakes down to 496,000 acre-feet.  This is below the lowest historic level of 621,000 acre-feet.

Water used by other LCRA municipal and industrial customers lowers this still more to 387,000 acre-feet.

Evaporation siphons about 179,000 acre-feet from the lakes every year, and though it occurs to a greater degree in the summer, this attrition occurs year round.  This would lower lake levels to 208,000 acre-feet.

Had the 2012 prohibition on rice farming not occurred, the lakes would have lost another 328,000 acre-feet, taking the lake level well below zero.

The chart above is for illustration purposes only.  The LCRA would prohibit any non-essential use for most purposes when the lake levels fall below 600,000 acre-feet; foremost of these prohibitions would be agricultural irrigation.  And in most cases, rainfall will add to lake levels.  However, this indicates that in a sustained drought, the lakes do not have enough water to provide for all past and future needs.

So this sets up the conflict of whether the Austin region’s urban growth will eventually stifle or even cripple the agricultural economy of its downstream neighbors.  In 2011, rice farmers paid about $28 an acre-foot for their water, while Austin, with the highest retail water cost of the top 10 Texas cities, paid almost $1,600 per acre-foot.11  While this is comparing untreated to treated water, it shows that Austinites are prepared to pay 57 times the cost that rice farmers downstream pay to grow their “crop” of grass.

There have been efforts by LCRA to expand supply.  In late 2012, land options were secured for a reservoir in the general region of the rice farms.  This, along with purchase of Bastrop groundwater, will provide at least 100,000 additional acre-feet annually.  While precipitation varies annually, this is about 31% of the annual needs of the rice farmers along the Colorado River from the Highland Lakes.

It is not clear who will pay for these new supplies.  The estimated cost of $205 per acre foot is more than 7 times what rice farmers currently pay for their supplies.12  The reservoir, by itself, would not come close to providing for rice farming’s peak use.

 Though the 2012 precedent for agricultural cutbacks has been set, the Colorado rice fields will not whither over night.  As the decades progress, it might be a different story.

The Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex

The Thirstiest Region In Texas

The Metroplex has spread its tentacles in several directions looking to expropriate new supplies.  At least that is the way some of the neighbors view it.  Artist: John Dolley

Of these top water-consuming urban centers, the most covetous is the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex.  Of all large Texas cities (over 100,000 in population), 5 of the top 10 water consumers per capita in 2010 were located in this region.13  The city of Dallas itself used about 50% more water per capita that year than San Antonio, despite getting more rainfall on an annual basis.  A few of the wealthier Metroplex mansions consume as much 6 million gallons a year – 60 times what the average Austin home uses.14

With population expected to virtually double in 50 years and an apparent feeling of entitlement for its consumption habits, the Metroplex has spread its tentacles in several directions looking to expropriate new supplies.  At least that is the way some of the neighbors view it.

To its north, there is Oklahoma, with abundant water from its reservoirs.  The Tarrant Regional Water District (Ft. Worth) wants to take 460,000 acre-feet (enough for 3 Austin-size cities) from these lakes through a pipeline running under the Red River to serve its growing customer base.  The people of Oklahoma are of a different mind, with concerns that they will lose water for future growth.

Tarrant filed a lawsuit that festered in the federal courts for 6 years between 2007 and 2013.  It stated that Oklahoma’s stance violated both a national Compact to equitably distribute the Red River’s water among four states, as well as the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.15  Oklahoma passed laws to restrict water sales in 2005.  But this was 25 years after a Compact was created.  Tarrant contended that Oklahoma’s regulations were superseded by Compact as well as interstate commerce.

The Texas plaintiff lost all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against it in June of 2013.  The High Court’s decision may have resounding effects all over the U.S., as many other states have water compacts that could be rendered questionable or invalid based on the outcome.

There is also more than one state critical of this proposal.  The Tarrant Regional Water District sought to remove the water before it reached the Red River, where it dilutes the salinity in the turbid water that gives the river its name.  Diverting this upstream water would have made the remaining supply flowing downstream to irrigators, industries, and cities more difficult to use in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as Oklahoma.

The Metroplex has also looked to Northeast Texas to build five new reservoirs.  The five proposed lakes represent half of the proposed new reservoir capacity for the entire state in the 2012 Texas Water Plan.  While a percentage of this water is expected to be used by local cities and industries, the lion’s share will go west to the Metroplex.

These proposed lakes would collectively flood at least 321 square miles.  In projects such as these, land must be set aside for environmental mitigation to replace lost wetlands and wildlife habitat.  So far, mitigation lands have been estimated at another 442 square miles.  This total area is about 3/4 of the size of the average county in Texas.16 

At least three of these proposals are highly controversial.   Local residents are often outraged about the loss of timber and agricultural production, loss of taxable land, loss of tourism income to their region, and loss of environmentally sensitive habitat.   

The original Lake Fastrill project was defeated because it was sited on land intended as a federal wildlife refuge.  The City of Dallas sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent the protection and purchase of land at the site.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that federal protection pre-empts local authority, and federal land purchases have begun.  However, the Texas Water Plan includes an as-yet-unsited replacement for Fastrill.

Marvin Nichols Reservoir, named for an original principal of the engineering firm that proposed it and may profit from its construction, is the largest of the lakes, inundating 249 square miles.  It has provoked opposition from many people in the region, who wonder why their income and lifestyles are placed at risk to fuel growth of cities already known for water waste.  At least one court challenge has already been filed.  One of the plaintiffs is the Ward Timber Company, which will lose substantial income if productive forests are flooded.17

Lake Ralph Hall would inundate 19 square miles of land.  Proposed by the Upper Trinity Regional Water District, it would serve much of the booming population of Denton County north of Dallas.  The City of Flower Mound, which represents 40% of the District’s sales, opposes the lake because it contends the cost is higher than any other regional source, and may go still higher.  While the cost is estimated to be $275 million, a contrasting estimate from the construction firm KBR places it much higher, at $460 million.18  A contested hearing process began in Austin in early 2013.

Houston’s Ground Subsidence

That Sinking Feeling

Brownwood flooded house

The flooded Brownwood subdivision in Baytown

Houston seems to have avoided being at war over water supply with most of its neighbors.  However, the region seems to be at war with itself.  For many decades, aquifers were the sole source of water supply.  This has led to ground subsidence on a massive scale.  Since 1906, most of Harris County has sunk at least 1 foot.19  Most of Central Houston has sunk at least 6 feet.  The area around the Houston Ship Channel has sunk 9 to 10 feet.20

 The problems created by Houston’s subsidence range from inconvenience to total destruction of property.  An infamous example of this was the Gulf Coast subdivision of Brownwood.21  When it was originally built as a high-end suburb of Baytown in the 1930s, it was about 10 feet above sea level; by the 1970s, the land was only 2 feet above sea level.  By the 1980s, some residents had to evacuate their homes at least 3 times a year because of flooding.  In 1983, Hurricane Alicia totally destroyed the neighborhood.

Smaller examples of damage include roads and pipelines that have to be modified or rebuilt, and buildings with broken foundations.  Perhaps the most expensive danger is the possibility of massive relocation, repair and drainage mitigation of the Ship Channel and nearby oil refineries.  This could conceivably cost billions of dollars.

To deal with the imminent danger, the state chartered two groundwater subsidence districts to regulate groundwater and manage the region’s conversion to surface water sources.  They are the only jurisdictions of their kind in the country.

Even when these two districts finally complete the transition to alternative water sources, there is nothing they can do to reverse the subsidence.  Ground compaction after excessive water withdrawals is effectively permanent.

By one estimate, replacement of groundwater with surface water will cost about $1.7 billion (in 2008 dollars).22  This considerable expense is why the water supply conversion plans are phased in over several decades.

In-stream Flows

The Thirsty River

There is a belief among certain water utility professionals that rivers were meant to be primitive, cheap canal systems to transport water  supply, and nothing more.  This overlooks that the ecological cycle that sustains animal and plant life is altered when rivers do not receive enough water, and when wetlands that control pollution and prevent floods are threatened.  This can happen naturally due to droughts.  It also happens when people withdraw too much water for their own purposes.  Combine drought and people, and the environment is in an even more perilous position.

 In 2007, the Texas Legislature enacted a law to create a process to set in-stream flows.  Studies by scientists are conducted to assess proper flows.  Following this, recommendations are made by a group of local stakeholders living in each river basin.  However, both scientific and stakeholder recommendations must be passed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  So far, the Commission has approved profoundly low in-stream flow rules for the major estuaries of Galveston Bay, Matagorda Bay, and San Antonio Bay.

San Antonio Bay serves as an example of how the Commission has deviated from the original recommendations of the stakeholders.  “Pulses” or water surges caused by rain cycles cue fish-spawning, deliver nutrients, and maintain bay salinity needed to support fish and wildlife.  In the Guadalupe River Basin, the stakeholders group recommended 9 pulse flows, but the TCEQ included only 3.  It also set both the guaranteed volume and freshwater inflow frequencies to the estuary at levels that are meaninglessly low.

The chart below shows an example of dramatically reduced pulses on one stretch of the Guadalupe river.23  In TCEQ’s recommendations, seasonal pulses were reduced by half, and large pulses were non-existent.  When the San Antonio Bay decision was a trickle of the amount recommended by the stakeholder committee, David Langford, a former executive vice-president of the Texas Wildlife Association, condemned it.  “This is a unilateral decision by TCEQ, showing a ‘they know best’ attitude.  It’s not politics, it’s arrogance and condescending toward local input.”24



1 “Fence Cutting,” The Handbook of Texas Online. Online:

2 “Private Benjamin Goodin ‘Ben’ Warren,” Officer Down Memorial Page.  Online:

3 “Ira Aten,” Texas Ranger Hall of Fame.  Online:

4 Webb, Walter Prescott, The Texas Rangers, Austin, TX: Uniiversity of Texas Press, p. 437.

5 Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), 2012 State Water Plan, Chapter 2.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Note 9 and 30, THE SUPPPLY SYSTEM.  This reduction is on a calorie basis when irrigated crops are turned to dryland crops.  This is conservative, since some of this formerly irrigated land will probably be retired from crop production altogether.

9 This does not include Austin’s “run of the river” rights.

10 Numbers in this article are average of Highland Lakes use between 2009 and 2011 from Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA Water Use Summaries 2011, March 30, 2012.

11 Irrigation costs are weighted average of Lakeside and Gulf Coast irrigation districts supplied by LCRA; from Anton Caputo, LCRA Communications Specialist, January 24, 2012.

12 McCluskey, Michael, Lower Basin Water Supply Update and Recommendation, Lower Colorado River Authority, December 18, 2012.

13  TWDB, Texas Water Use Summary Estimates, “2010 Water Use Survey Summary by City.”  Online:

14 Repko, Melissa, “In Dallas area, high water use can be tied to affluence,” Dallas Morning News, July 28, 2012.  This compares to about 100,000 gallons per year for the average Austin residential customer.

15 Jacobs, Jeremy P., “Water: Supreme Court wades into bitter Texas-Okla. feud ahead of expected ‘flood of litigation’,” Greenwire, March 12, 2013.

16 Marvin Nichols area from Xu, Weihuan, The Economic Impact of the Proposed Marvin Nichols I Reservoir to the Northeast Texas Forest Industry, Texas Forest Service, August 2002. 

Lower Bois D’Arc Reservoir surface area from North Texas Municipal Water District.  Online:

Lake Ralph Hall surface area from Hundley, Wendy, “Long-awaited Lake Ralph Hall in Fannin County may get approval next year, officials say,” Dallas Morning News, October 20, 2012.  Mitigation estimate of 23 square miles from Denise Hickey, Public Relations Coordinator, Upper Trinity Regional Water District 

Lake Columbia surface and mitigation areas from Holcomb, Kelley, “Lake Columbia Water Supply Reservoir Project” (PowerPoint Presentation), Angelina and Neches River Authority, March 4, 2010.

17 Rochelle, Martin, “Water Laws Committee Meeting and Case Law Update,” PowerPoint Presentation, Texas Water Conservation Association, 2012 Annual Conference, p. 15.

18 Roark, Chris, “Hayden makes plea regarding lake,” Flower Mound Leader, January 11.

19 “Subsidence Contour Map 1906-2000,” Houston Galveston Subsidence District.  Online:

20 Ibid.

21 Devin Galloway et. al., Editors, Land Subsidence in the United States, Reston, VA: U.S. Geologic Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999, Chapter 7.

22 Derived from TWDB, Region H Water Planing Group, 2011 Regional Water Plan, p. ES-26.

23 From Jennier Ellis, National Wildlife Foundation, November 9, 2012.

24 Sikes, David, “TCEQ plan is a corruption of legislative order,” Corpus Christi Caller Times, April 30, 2012.

25 Calculated as sums of each high flow pulse volume per event at recommended frequency (e.g., 1 per 5 years) for 50 year period.


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