Impact of Senate Bill 1 on the Depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer

Andrew Romanek

CE 385D Water Resources Planning and Management

December 4, 1997


Since the development of irrigation technologies in the 1940s, farmers of the High Plains have pumped large amounts of water from the underlying Ogallala Aquifer in order to increase crop yields. Until the 1980s, wells were pumped at extravagant rates as the aquifer was believed to be an inexhaustible resource. It is now known that recharge to the aquifer is only through water infiltration from the surface, and fifty years of pumping has significantly lowered the water levels in the aquifer. Some of the declines have been the greatest in Texas where levels have dropped over a hundred feet. Even with improvements in technology and conservation, some levels continue to decline. It is the purpose of this project to study the possible effect of Senate Bill 1 (recently passed by the 75th Texas Legislature) on these declining levels. Senate Bill 1 is a good first step towards addressing the emerging water resources problems in Texas as it requires water management plans of the state and regional zones aimed at water conservation. Also included in Senate Bill 1 are provisions for the creation and management of priority groundwater management districts and for new requirements in well permits. However, until the specific rules of the management plans are designed and implemented, Senate Bill 1's effect on Texas water resource law will not be known. For now, groundwater conservation of the Ogallala will lie with the farmers of the Texas High Plains.


Once labeled as the Great American Desert, the Great Plains region of the United States was believed to be devoid of any adequate water supply. However, the discovery of the Ogallala Aquifer significantly modified this view. The Ogallala Aquifer, also referred to as the High Plains Aquifer, covers more than 170,000 square miles and holds 3.3 billion acre-feet of water (Lewis 42). The aquifer underlies the states from South Dakota to Texas and is the primary source of water for this region. Most of the water pumped from the aquifer is used for irrigation of farmlands, and this pumping has led to drastic reductions in the water levels of the aquifer. When the practice of irrigation became popular after WWII, it was believed that the Ogallala was an inexhaustible resource fed from an underground river from the Rockies (Lewis 43). As a result of this belief, farmers and landowners pumped extravagant amounts of water without any thought of conservation. The recharge to the Ogallala actually comes from precipitation that seeps into the ground, and this recharge is significantly less than the current rates of pumping. Water levels in the Ogallala have been steadily decreasing, and it has been estimated that by the year 2020, over 25% of the aquifer reserves will be gone (Lewis 42).

The problem of water availability is even more severe in Texas, where the saturated thickness of the aquifer is not as dense as in other areas. While the problem is well known in this region, progress towards a viable solution has been slow. Groundwater regulation in Texas is governed by the right of capture law which allows landowners to pump as much water off their land without any legal repercussion. Essentially, no regulation exists and abuses of water use continue. However, the Texas Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 1 that deals specifically with water conservation. It is the purpose of this project to study Senate Bill 1 and discuss any impacts this bill will have on groundwater regulation and drought management. Specific emphasis will be placed on SB1's effect on the Ogallala Aquifer, and what the future holds for this vast underground sea.


The terms Ogallala and High Plains Aquifer are often used interchangeably (as they are in this report) when discussing the groundwater system of the Great Plains. However, the Ogallala is actually one of several aquifers in the region formed through ancient erosion of the Rocky Mountains (Zwingle 83). The term High Plains Aquifer refers to the collective total of these aquifers with the Ogallala equaling approximately 80% of this total (83). The High Plains Aquifer covers 174,000 square miles and holds a quadrillion gallons of water (83). Thousands of years of rain and snow account for this collection of water. The aquifer underlies portions of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and South Dakota and is the largest groundwater system in North America. Two-thirds of the water reserves are under Nebraska (Lewis 42). Click on the links below to get a better idea of the extent and size of this aquifer.

This vast underground water supply went essentially unnoticed until the 1870s. The region was believed to be extremely arid and unsuited for farming. As one expedition member in 1820 describes, "I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence" (Zwingle 91). However, cheap lands and opportunity brought many people to the region with the hopes that success would follow them. The practice of dryland farming, which uses available moisture for its water supply, was common but the precipitation in the region was unpredictable and crop failures were frequent (Urban 206). However, the discovery of water beneath the ground and the development of windmills significantly changed the utilization of water in the High Plains. Hand dug wells and windmills provided alternative sources of water that could be used to satisfy household and livestock needs. These new discoveries came into general use after the Civil War and led to an even greater expansion of the region (Urban 206). Despite these advances, the impact of this additional water source on farming techniques was not realized until the 1900s with the development of irrigation technologies.

Irrigation first began to be used in the early 1900s with steam driven pumps that would transport water to the fields. Irrigation technologies continued to develop and more people began switching from dryland farming to irrigation. However, it was not until after WWII that irrigation really took over the High Plains region. Farmers began to realize the added benefits of this new type of farming as crop yields could be increased by 600 to 800 percent (Lewis 43). The required costs of buying fuel and pumps were insignificant when compared to these gains in crop yield. As a result, wells began to spring up across the region and tap the vast reserves of water that had been untouched for thousands of years. In 1948, for example, Texas had 8,356 wells, but only nine years later, this total had increased to 42,225 (Lewis 43). Irrigation was still a new technology at this time, and farmers would pump as much water as they saw fit to help increase their crop production. As Lloyd Urban describes, "If a little was good, more was bound to be better" (206). To make matters worse, it was believed that the Ogallala was fed by an underground river from the Rockies, meaning that it did not matter how much water one used (Lewis 43). However, as already mentioned, the aquifer recharges from infiltration of water into the ground, primarily through precipitation.

From the late 1940s until the late 1970s, pumping of water in drastic amounts continued in the High Plains region. "The result was the transformation of the once drought-ridden High Plains into a new fertile crescent, a 'green belt' enormous in its dimensions and its productivity" (Lewis 43). However, as is usually the case, every gain involves some sort of loss, and the loss in this case was the depletion of the Ogallala. Significant declines in water levels were seen throughout the region, but particularly in those states such as Texas, Kansas, and Colorado, where the saturated thickness is not as dense as in other areas of the aquifer. By 1980, it was discovered that Kansas had already pumped 38% of its reserves, and in parts of Texas the problem was even worse as water tables had dropped two hundred feet (Lewis 43). Pumping rates greatly exceeded recharge rates and wells were running dry or becoming less profitable.

During the 1980s, though, a notable change occurred which has reduced the demand on the Ogallala. This change was driven by a number of different factors. Specifically, changes in irrigation techniques, technology changes, and a better awareness of the water availability problem have led to decreases in the amount of water pumped. When fuel prices rose in the late 1970s, the once low cost of irrigation no longer existed (Lewis 43). As a result, farmers began to realize that higher profitability was often compatible with lower yields (43). It was also discovered water was typically put on the soil to often because farmers wanted to be sure they had plenty of moisture (Zwingle 93).

Changes in sprinkler technology also reduced the amount of water needed from the Ogallala. Fields are typically irrigated with center pivot sprinklers, but these sprinklers are not the most efficient users of water. Center pivot sprinklers spray water directly into the air in small droplets, and much of the water sprayed evaporates before reaching the ground. The birth of the LEPA (low energy proficiency application) sprinkler has eliminated much of the inefficiency of center pivot sprinklers. The LEPA system saves water by squirting larger droplets of water directly onto the surface, thus resisting evaporation. As much as 98% of the water dispensed can reach the crop's roots (Zwingle 99). This system is gaining popularity as farmers become more concerned about conservation and preservation. Click below to view pictures of each type of sprinkler system.

The changes in problem awareness and technology have reduced the decline in water levels in the Ogallala, but the extent of this decline is somewhat unclear. Lewis reports that between 1980 and 1988, the system water-level actually rose 0.8 ft. (43). Zwingle states that the average water level declined only one foot from 1980 to 1990 as opposed to the ten foot decline from 1940 to 1980 (85). Perhaps the best display is the lower portion of the cross-section shown above which shows the water level changes for the aquifer from 1980 to 1990. The dark blue areas refer to rises of more than 15 ft. while the dark red areas are for declines of more than 15 ft. The gray area represents no significant change. While many portions of the aquifer show promising gains, many significant declines still exist, particularly for Texas and Kansas. While the current management practices are having a better effect on the Ogallala water levels, these practices might not be enough to allow future generations to utilize this resource.

An additional method aimed at improving conservation and preservation is regulation of water withdrawals through legislation. Legislation can set limits on withdrawals and thus prevent abuses of groundwater pumping. However, legislation has frequently been met with intense opposition, particularly in Texas, Colorado, and Kansas (Lewis 44). As one Texas farmer describes, "I'm very ecologically minded. But I am never in favor of the government intruding into the lives of people" (Haurwitz A22). The lack of regulation is no more apparent than in Texas where groundwater pumping is governed by the right of capture. Right of capture allows any landowner to pump as much water off their land as they want without legal recourse. Owners are even allowed to dry up a neighbors well provided they use the water they pump for some purpose. Thus, Texas groundwater law seems to encourage a race for the available water supply among competing landowners as excessive pumping and wasteful practices are encouraged (Urban 215).

In 1949, the Texas Legislature authorized the creation of underground water conservation districts, but by 1985, only six districts had been created (Urban 215). Additional legislation in 1985 provided more of an impetus for district formation as boundaries could be redefined according to political divisions instead of aquifer boundaries. This new legislation had a significant effect as by 1987, twenty-two underground water conservation districts were in operation (Urban 215). Some of the tasks of these districts include water-well inventories, well permitting, public education, and the delineation of critical areas (216). Districts are even authorized to set well spacing requirements and withdrawals, but only three districts in the High Plains have set spacing requirements and none have put a limit on withdrawals (Roberts 94). Nebraska also uses local regulation to set groundwater controls, but their programs have been more successful. Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) in Nebraska have developed comprehensive plans to deal with groundwater issues, and some of their regulations include limits on well spacing and withdrawals along with more stringent requirements for critical areas. Besides Nebraska, many other western states such as New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona require permits for groundwater use in critical zones and restrict pumping so that landowners cannot dry up the wells of others (Haurwitz A23). Texas is one of the few remaining states to practice the English common law of right of capture.

While groundwater districts in Texas are a step in the right direction, their influence on groundwater use is moderate at best. Texas surface water laws are considerably more strict that groundwater laws, but since the Texas courts treat all groundwater as percolating and not an underground river, these laws do not apply to groundwater systems. The Texas Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 1 that deals with water conservation and management. What impact, if any, this bill will have on groundwater regulation in Texas and as a relief to the declining water levels in the Ogallala is discussed in the next two sections.

Senate Bill 1

Senate Bill 1 is actually a series of amendments to Texas Water Code (1981). SB1 was passed by the 75th Legislature on June 1, 1997 and became effective on September 1, 1997. Click on the links below to view Senate Bill 1 or an outline that will help you locate specific information.

The most significant addition of SB1 to Texas water laws is the development of water management plans. By Sept. 1, 2001, and for every five subsequent years, the Texas Water Development Board is required to adopt a state water plan. "The state water plan shall provide for the orderly development, management, and conservation of water resources and preparation for and response to drought conditions, in order that sufficient water will be available at a reasonable cost to ensure public health, safety, and welfare; further economic development; and protect the agricultural and natural resources of the entire state" (Sec. 1.01, Sec. 16.051). This plan will largely be based on water plans created by regional water districts, which are also created under SB1. The Texas Water Development Board has until Sept. 1 of 1998 to designate these areas, and then each region will have until Sept. 1 of 2000 to adopt a regional plan. This regional plan must be consistent with the principles of the state plan, but specific considerations can be given to regional conditions. Some of these conditions include existing planning efforts, protection of water rights, effect of upstream development on bays and estuaries, and water transfers. A specific provision must be included for water management strategies during a drought of record, when flows are at 75% of normal, and when flows are at 50% of normal. Regional plans will also incorporate local water plans required by permit holders and groundwater districts, as discussed later. Finally, public meetings are required so that the plan can be reviewed and commented on by members of the public.

A large portion of SB1 deals specifically with surface water and groundwater provisions. Of particular importance to this study is the designation and management of critical areas. SB1 renames the term critical area to priority groundwater management area. Priority groundwater management areas must be identified annually, and they refer to areas that are experiencing or are expected to experience within the next 25 years, critical groundwater problems. These problems can include shortages, contamination, and land subsidence. Prior to the creation of a priority area, the executive director must prepare a report that includes the recommended boundaries, the reasons for designation as a priority area, and a recommendation as to actions that should be considered for management. Specific provisions are also given for the formation of a priority groundwater management area and how priority areas can be added to existing districts. Another stipulation of SB1 is that the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) prepares a report by Jan. 31 of each odd-numbered year that describes the creation and activities of priority groundwater management areas. The report will include a listing of the priority groundwater management areas and districts, their location, why they were created, an analysis of their activities, recommendations for changes, and educational efforts pursued in the new areas. This report will at least provide more information of what is occurring or not occurring within certain districts. Districts with little activity could be flagged and forced to develop better conservation oriented activities.

Prior to the adoption of SB1, the most important aspect of the Water Code was the creation of groundwater conservation districts. Groundwater districts are still the state's preferred method of groundwater management, but some significant amendments are added with SB1. The most significant addition is the requirement of district management plans. These plans will be incorporated into the regional water plans and must include the following management goals: providing the most efficient use of groundwater; controlling and preventing waste of groundwater; controlling and preventing subsidence; addressing conjunctive surface water management issues; and addressing natural resource issues. Specifically, each district must identify actions and procedures that will be taken to attain these goals. Estimates of the existing amount of groundwater, the amount of groundwater being used, the annual amount of recharge, and the projected water demand need to be included as well. Groundwater conservation districts will have two years to submit a management plan.

Another significant addition to this section is the new requirements for well permits. Permits are required for the drilling, equipping, or completing of wells that produce at least 25,000 gallons of groundwater a day. These conditions have not changed with the passage of SB1, but new requirements may be included in the permit application. Some of these requirements include: a statement of the nature and purpose of the proposed use and the amount of water to be used for each purpose; a water conservation plan or a declaration that the applicant will comply with the district's management plan; the location of each well and the estimated rate at which water will be withdrawn; and a drought contingency plan. It will then be the responsibility of the district to determine whether the proposed use of water unreasonably affects existing groundwater resources, is dedicated to a beneficial use, and is consistent with the district's certified water management plan. The district does have the right to deny permits and also set limits on well spacing or withdrawals so as to minimize drawdown and reduce interference between wells. To what extent they utilize this right remains to be seen.

Extensive methods of finance appropriations are also incorporated in SB1. Approximately $34 million will be appropriated by House Bill 1 to provide agencies with necessary resources to implement the provisions of SB1 (SB1 - Fiscal Note). Various funds and programs are created through SB1 also such as the Groundwater District Loan Assistance Fund and the Water Financial Assistance Bond Program. Another specific fund created is the Texas Water Development Fund II. Fund II receives its proceeds from the sale of water financial assistance bonds issued for the purpose of providing financial aid to political subdivisions. The money received is distributed into either a state participation account, an economically distressed areas program account, or a financial assistance account. The money in these accounts may be used by the Texas Water Development Board in whatever ways they see fit in order to administer the fund. Any district or subdivision may apply for financial assistance and be granted assistance from the TWDB provided they meet certain requirements. These requirements might include using the funds for water conservation projects or for the purchase of equipment for agricultural production.

Similar to some of the information gathering tasks mentioned above, SB1 also calls for the development of a statewide water resource data collection and dissemination network. This network of resource data will include studies, investigations, surveys, and spatial data. In order to acquire the geo-spatial data, the Texas Geographic Information Council will be formed. After the creation of the data network, the data can be summarized and analyzed to help develop better conservation oriented practices. For example, suitable locations for future water facilities or cost-effective water supply alternatives could be determined with the use of the data network.

A final important provision of SB1 is the creation of the Interim Committee on Water Resources Development and Management. This committee will study the state's water supply and wastewater infrastructure needs, and it consists of five members from the House and five members from the Senate. Specifically, the committee is responsible for reviewing Texas' inventory of water resources, its projections for future water and wastewater needs to the year 2050, and the implementation of SB1. The committee will also monitor finances and those regions that are experiencing financial difficulty. The findings of this committee and any recommendations must be presented in a report to the governor and 76th Legislature by Jan. 5, 1999.

Senate Bill 1 passed by a unanimous vote in the Texas Senate and by a near unanimous vote in the Texas House of Representatives. However, its passage has encountered significant resistance elsewhere. The Texas Water Development Board recently released the proposed regional water zones, and while these zones will not be finalized until Sept. of 1998, some communities are already complaining. For instance, Jackson County in southeast Texas is lumped together with San Antonio, which is over 100 miles away (Barta T2). Emmett Gloyna, manager of the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority, fears that in relation to competing interests, "We'd (Jackson County) be lost in the shuffle" (T2). The debate over regional boundaries may only be the start of things to come, particularly when considering what problems could arise in the development of management plans.


As Texas Senator J.E. Brown comments, "Senate Bill 1 is not the end, it's just the beginning" (Barta T4). Senate Bill 1 does not provide by any means a radical redefinition of groundwater laws in Texas, but it does address the general trend of a developing water resources problem in Texas. Specific conditions are not stated for the Ogallala Aquifer or any groundwater system, but many of the provisions of SB1 should have an impact on the problems of the Ogallala. Many areas of the Ogallala would likely qualify as priority groundwater management areas as some areas have shown water level declines of over a hundred feet. The creation of plans and reports as required by SB1 should provide better monitoring and management of these areas. The management plans should also put more pressure on groundwater conservation districts to stay actively involved, and they should also shed more light on specific supply problems since they call for estimates on the existing amount of groundwater, the amount being used, the rate of recharge, and the projected demands. In general, SB1 should create a better database of information on water supply problems, and with new requirements for permits and new district enforcement capabilities, abuses of water conservation should be reduced.

However, Senate Bill 1 only provides a start to addressing water resources problems, and its full effect will probably not be known until the adoption of the water management plans. Theoretically, these plans could significantly change laws such as the right of capture law by setting limitations on the spacing of wells and the amount of water that certain wells can pump. Some experts speculate that the changes will be significant, but that they will take place behind the scenes (Barta T4). Others see SB1 as the first step in a long process of reform that could eventually end the right of capture laws and also open the door for profit water marketing (T4). SB1 does incorporate all levels of the state authority, though, as local communities, regional zones, and the state will all have to submit agreeing management plans. How these three branches cooperate and collectively pursue a common goal will also have a significant impact on the effectiveness of Senate Bill 1.

The provisions of SB1 should increase the awareness of problems in the often overlooked Ogallala Aquifer. However, for the moment, protection of the Ogallala in Texas lies with the farmers of the High Plains. They must evaluate how much water they actually need and what effect their pumping has on the groundwater levels. They will also be responsible for using new technologies such as the LEPA sprinklers. Eventually, regional or local boards may set technology requirements or withdrawal limitations in accordance with the framework of Senate Bill 1, but these controls appear to be at least five years away. If farmers above the Ogallala want to maintain their natural underground water resource for generations to come, they must take the initiative. Regardless of the mistakes already made, large amounts of water are still present in the Ogallala and steps can be taken to assure that water will still be their in the future.


Barta, Patrick. "Surf and Turf: Battle Is Brewing Over Water-District Realignment." Wall Street Journal 10 Aug. 1997, T2 and T4.

Haurwitz, Ralph K.M. "Fragile Water Sources Get Little Protection." Austin American-Statesman 23 Nov. 1997, A23.

Haurwitz, Ralph K.M. "Even in the Wilds, Nature Is Hurting." Austin American-Statesman 23 Nov. 1997, A22.

Lewis, Jack. "The Ogallala Aquifer: An Underground Sea." EPA Journal 16 Nov-Dec 1990: 42-44.

Roberts, Rebecca S. "Groundwater Management Institutions." Groundwater Exploitation in the High Plains. Ed. David Kromm and Stephen White. Kansas: Kansas UP, 1992. 88-109.

Stephenson, Kurt. "Groundwater Management in Nebraska: Governing the Commons through Local Resource Districts." Natural Resources Journal 36 Fall 1996: 521-538.

Templer, Otis W. "The Legal Context for Groundwater Use." Groundwater Exploitation in the High Plains. Ed. David Kromm and Stephen White. Kansas: Kansas UP, 1992. 64-87.

Texas Legislature Online.

Urban, Lloyd V. "Texas High Plains." Groundwater Exploitation in the High Plains. Ed. David Kromm and Stephen White. Kansas: Kansas UP, 1992. 204-223.

Zwingle, Erla. "Wellspring of the High Plains." National Geographic 183 March 1993: 80-109.