By David Bowser
MIAMI, Texas — The Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District recently tabled his request to pump water from his Texas Panhandle ranch for sale to thirsty cities downstate, but T. Boone Pickens says his group of Roberts County landowners, operating as Mesa Water Inc., and the groundwater district have now reached agreement and the pumping permit will be granted.
"I think we've resolved our differences on this," Pickens says. "Now it comes down to finding somebody to buy the water."
C.E. Williams, general manager of the groundwater district, confirms Pickens' announcement.
"It looks like we worked out our deal with the district," Pickens says. "We're happy about that."
Pickens and a half-dozen neighboring ranchers applied for pumping permits last fall. Pickens says the group wants to sell water from beneath their land to either the Fort Worth-Dallas metropolis, El Paso or San Antonio. The group has put together 150,000 acres worth of water rights, and Pickens says they want to gather 200,000 acres in total.
With a ranch along the Canadian River in Roberts County, Pickens says the proposed sale of water is a defensive move on his part and that of his neighbors.
The Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, which provides water for 11 communities in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains, bought about 41,000 acres in water rights several years ago. That was followed by the City of Amarillo, which bought more than 70,000 acres of water rights.
Pickens and his neighbors say they fear that CRMWA will drain the water from beneath their land. Amarillo, which is a member of CRMWA, says it won't begin to pump water from its Roberts County well field for another 25 years.
The Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District granted CRMWA and Amarillo permission to pump one acre-foot per year for each acre they own. Fearing the water would be drained from the aquifer beneath his ranch and the ranches of his neighbors, Pickens asked the water district in his application for permission to pump the same amount as CRMWA and Amarillo.
A hydrology study late last year, however, indicated that the increased pumping would draw the aquifer in the district down more than the district's standards would allow.
The district last year adopted the Panhandle regional water planning group's "50-50" standard. Under the new rule, 50 percent of the water stored in the aquifer must be left at the end of 50 years.
Pickens says his group can meet that standard.
"If he thinks he can do it and stay within the parameters that we've put together as a district," says Williams, "more power to him."
"We are going to get the same deal as CRMWA," Pickens says.
Williams says that even though the permits for CRMWA and Amarillo allow one acre-foot per acre owned, there are provisions in the permits to adjust pumping rates if monitoring wells indicate the aquifer is being depleted more quickly than initially projected. Williams indicated that the same provisions would apply to Mesa Water.
While it appears that Mesa Water will get their permits, Pickens says they are still lacking one important piece of their water sales plan — a customer.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're all after the same thing," Pickens says. "We're going to have to market our water at some point here in the future."
The Ogallala Aquifer, source of the water in contention, extends across the Texas Panhandle, Texas South Plains and north across the Great Plains all the way to the Dakotas. The saturated sands that make up the huge aquifer recharge slowly, however, and movement of water within the aquifer is quirky. In one area, water may flow one direction while in another area, it may flow a different direction.
On the Texas South Plains around Lubbock, a great part of the Ogallala Aquifer has been depleted, but in the western part of Roberts County, the water-saturated sands of the aquifer are more than 300 feet thick.
Pickens says he fears the water in Roberts County will become as depleted as the South Plains through CRMWA pumping.
"That's what's going to happen to the water," Pickens says.
Mesa's position is that they can do nothing and let CRMWA drain the water from beneath their land, or they can sell their water and profit from it.
Ultimately, Pickens says that over an extended period (last fall he estimated 100 years), water sales could bring a billion dollars to landowners in Roberts, Hemphill, Ochletree and Lipscomb counties in the northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle.
"What this comes down to — and I've told others that I've talked to — is that we're really looking at four counties," Pickens says. "We're sort of the left out counties in the upper 21 counties in the state because we have not had any place to sell our water, and we can't irrigate because our surface is too rough."
Pickens says even though his plan will double the amount of water pumped from the aquifer in the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District, district rules will guarantee that water will remain.
"When you hear that Boone Pickens is going to turn Roberts County into a dust bowl, that's crazy," Pickens says. "That's not going to happen. We're never going to be without water. There will always be water."
Over the past 40 years, Pickens says, a lot of water has been pumped from the farming counties to the west and south of Roberts County. There has been some water depletion in the eastern part of Roberts County, but Pickens says he's not blaming anybody for the water depletion of the Ogallala.
"All I'm doing is pointing out what we're up against," he says.
Pickens says it was the 43,000 acres of water rights bought by the Canadian River Water Authority from Quixx, a subsidiary of Southwestern Public Service, a local electric utility, that changed the lives of landowners in Roberts County.
Then Amarillo bought 71,000 acres from Salem Abraham, a Canadian, Texas, businessman and rancher.
"What's going to happen to us is we're going to be drained if we don't protect ourselves by selling our water," he insists.
Pickens says he and his neighbors, under the umbrella of Mesa Water Inc., put together about 150,000 acres with 3.3 million acre-feet of usable groundwater.
"We say usable because that takes it down to 50 percent of saturation," Pickens says. "We think that is all you need to take out. That's fine with us. We have no problem with that."
CRMWA has a million acre-feet, and Amarillo has 1.7 million acre-feet of water rights in Roberts County.
"We actually have put together more water than Amarillo and CRMWA have," Pickens says. "We just have one big problem. We don't have a buyer."
Another group, led by Amarillo lawyer Ronald Nickum, has put together about 190,000 acres, primarily in the southern and eastern part of Roberts County.
"In one form or another," Pickens says, "it looks like most of the people in Roberts County want to sell some water. I think that's probably the case. I think it's the thing to do, because if we don't we're going to lose our water."
About 1.8 billion acre-feet of water was produced in the 21 counties of the Texas Panhandle. Most of it went to agriculture, and much of that was to irrigated operations to the west and south of Roberts County.
Pickens says his project amounts to only about 10 percent of the total amount of water pumped in the Panhandle.
"You can see that this project, even though it's a sizeable project, there's no question about it, it's not some unusually high percentage of the production of water in the Panhandle," Pickens says. "We'll be producing about 10 percent. I believe this to be surplus water."
The engineering studies Mesa Water has done show that water can be piped from Roberts County to the Fort Worth-Dallas area in a 108-inch line for less than $800 an acre-foot.
"We will sell water, we believe, to Greenbelt, Vernon and Wichita Falls," Pickens says. "We'll get to Fort Worth-Dallas with 150,000 acre-feet of water out of 200,000 acre-feet. That's a 385-mile line."
Pickens points out that CRMWA has a 325-mile pipeline that takes water from Lake Meredith through Amarillo to Lubbock and Lamesa.
"That line is 96 inches in diameter," he says. "You're not talking about a situation much different than that one, and that was built 30 years ago."
Pickens thinks it is a viable project despite the distance, but there is more work ahead.
"We believe it will work, but we've got to get $775 an acre-foot for the water when we get there," Pickens says.
That figure includes amortizing the pipeline.
"I have gone to all these different places, Steve Stevens and I have, and we've talked to them about it," Pickens says. "I don't think it's going to happen that you're going to be able to sell water rights in Roberts County to Fort Worth-Dallas, El Paso or San Antonio. It isn't going to happen. They don't show any interest in that at all."
It's too complicated, Pickens says, and the municipalities see problems with that approach.
"We believe that what we have to do is make a contract with one of these cities at the end of the line," Pickens says, "and then with several places down the line."
Then, he adds, Pickens and his neighbors will have to build the pipelines themselves.
"That's where I think we're headed," he says.
Once they get a 20 or 25-year contract, he believes they can finance the pipeline.
If they go to San Antonio, Pickens says Mesa Water will have to get $1170 an acre-foot. "That's 614 miles," he points out.
The pipeline would start in Roberts County with 108-inch pipe. By the time it reaches San Antonio, it will be down to 84 inches. That's providing San Antonio with 150,000 acre-feet of water and providing 50,000 acre-feet of water to cities along the way.
The least likely sale of water would be to El Paso, Pickens says.
"You'd have to get up to $1773 an acre-foot to make that work," he notes.
Pickens says he was told that El Paso is studying a desalinization project that would result in water at $1400 an acre-foot.
"We're not too far away with $1773 against $1400," he says. "The price is getting very, very high for this water all over the western part of the state."
Still, Pickens says that if he and his neighbors do nothing, they will lose their water. He says it has already been an expensive deal for him.
"I've got $2 million in this deal counting the options that I've bought from Quixx out here and engineering, legals and everything else," Pickens says. "I've got $2 million bucks in the deal. I'm not asking anything from anybody, either. I think I have got to sell water. I don't think I have any choice."
The problem now comes down to finding a customer, he says.
"That's where I am. I am trying diligently to sell the water, and I don't know how hard the Nickum Group is trying to sell their water," Pickens says. "I have yet to go to a meeting where somebody made me an offer for my water. I have not had that meeting yet, but I will say this, I'm getting closer to it."
Pickens says he expects to sell the water, but only if he can deliver it to the buyer.
"I'm talking to them, but I think what's going to have to happen is that nobody's going to buy my water up here and lay a pipeline to Roberts County," Pickens says. "I think I'm going to have to get a price on the other end and a contract, and I'm going to have to arrange for the financing and build a pipeline. I think that's where I'm headed. I haven't gotten anybody to spend any time talking about buying water rights."
Pickens says he thinks Mesa will have to get a pipeline out of Roberts County, and the only markets he sees are to the south.
"That's a fact to me," Pickens says. "What will happen is you'll develop water fields that will be trying to offset CRMWA. That's where you'll be trying to protect yourself. That's the only drainage you're faced with at this point."
He thinks monitoring wells overseen by the water district will prevent his group from damaging any neighbors. Monitoring wells will determine the pumping, he says.
"I suppose the district will come up with this," Pickens says. "I don't know."
Pickens notes that there's a little more than 550,000 acres per county in the four counties of the northeast corner of the Panhandle.
"There's 2.2 million acres for the four counties and there's less than 100,000 acres of irrigation in those four counties," he says. "The irrigation is five percent of the overall 2.2 million acres in the four counties."
Consequently, irrigation in that four-county area is not a major factor.
"I think that over a long period of time, water will be continually bought, starting on the west side of the county and be continually bought into an infrastructure that goes to the south.
"To the landowners in those four counties, I think you're talking about a billion dollars," Pickens says. "A billion dollars will eventually go to landowners in those counties. I think that is terribly important."
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