Basics of Texas Water Supply Rights

Texas recognizes two different “types” of water and regulates each differently: surface water and groundwater. Statewide, groundwater supplies 60% of Texas’ water demands, and surface water supplies the remaining 40%.

Texas’ population is expected to grow by 82% from 2010 through 2060, from 25.4 million to 46.3 million people.  Simple math says our water supply will become more scarce.  Scarcity makes rights more important, as this limited resource must be distributed to demands according to some set of priorities.  Water in Texas is no different, and Texas regulates surface water much differently than it regulates groundwater.


Surface waters (rivers, creeks, ponds, natural lakes) are owned by the State of Texas, held in trust for its residents.  To use surface water, or to impound surface water into a reservoir, one must obtain an “appropriated” or “permitted” surface water right.  These programs are generally managed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  Some surface water uses do not require a permit, such as water diverted for domestic and livestock purposes by those living beside a river.

Texas has approximately 6.3 million acre-feet of annual surface water supply.  But it has permitted over 20 million acre-feet of annual surface water.  Among permitted rights, Texas generally follows the “first in time, first in right” rule.  So some people with “paper” water rights don’t have “wet” water to match.  To allocate scarce wet water to paper water rights, one must compare and prioritize all water rights that exist in the same river basin, in relation to each other. This can be a very challenging task.


Texas is unique among all states in that it recognizes private ownership of groundwater.  Texas recognizes 9 major and 21 minor underground rivers, or aquifers of groundwater, in the state.  Landowners own the groundwater beneath the surface estate, and a landowner may use as much of that groundwater as it can capture, provided the water is used for “beneficial” uses.  Landowners can sell, lease, or otherwise transfer their groundwater rights.


In areas of the state that are not in a Groundwater Conservation District (GCD), water wells can be drilled anywhere, of any size, and pump a practically unlimited amount of water for beneficial use.  But in areas within a GCD, the GCD may implement well spacing requirements, limit production, and impose taxes, among other things.  The 2011 combined budgets of the GCDs in Texas exceeded $45 million.


No state exerts more effort in water planning than Texas.  In Texas, water use is subject to water planning.  Every five years the TWDB produces a State Water Plan. The first one came out in 1961.  The current plan was completed in 2012.  The following charts from the 2012 State Water Plan illustrate Texas’ water supply challenges over the next 50 years:


The State has 16 Regional Water Planning Areas, each one developing a water plan for that region.  Dallas-Fort Worth is in Region C.  Internet website links to the current state water plan and those regional planning areas with websites can be found on our Links page.


These three charts are specific to Region C, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth:


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