MPGCD, Williams eyeing permit limits

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Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District (MPGCD) Board of Directors held its first hearing on Tuesday regarding rule changes and permit conditions outlined in the settlement with Fort Stockton Holdings (Clayton Williams Farms). That April 28 settlement seeks to resolve permitting and court cases, including those of Republic Water Company of Texas, which has a groundwater rights leasing agreement with FSH contingent on construction of a pipeline to Odessa.

In 2009, MPGCD had denied FSH’s application for a permit that involved applying part or all of its historic and existing (H&E) irrigation groundwater rights to municipal and/or industrial use. That case went to the El Paso Court of Appeals, which on Wednesday returned (remanded) jurisdiction to MPGCD for further permitting proceedings consistent with the settlement. The MPGCD board plans to hold an initial remand hearing at its next meeting, July 18.

The crux of the settlement on the proposed new permit is FSH surrendering about 60 percent (28,400 acre-feet per year) of its H&E groundwater rights in exchange for a new, non-H&E, production permit with special (limiting) conditions to produce that same amount of water for municipal, industrial or agriculture use inside or outside of Pecos County. At Tuesday's meeting, MPGCD attorney Michael Gershon suggested that the July 18 board meeting include a hearing on FSH’s retiring that part of its H&E rights.

The settlement outlines special conditions for a monitoring protocol to protect against excessive drawdown in the Belding portion of the Edwards-Trinity aquifer by any FSH non-H&E wells. Tuesday’s hearing followed a meeting Monday between the district’s contract hydrogeologists and attorney and their FSH peers. They discussed the district’s draft proposal for redrawing its Management Zone 1 (Belding agricultural area) to include only those wells with a substantial effect on Comanche Springs, designating specific wells for monitoring, and specifying groundwater drawdown thresholds as well as reductions to the amount of groundwater permitted should drawdowns trigger such cutbacks.

FSH is now preparing its reply as is the hydrogeologist for the Belding Farms pecan operation, which neighbors the Williams farm and whose parent company is one of several other parties involved in the settlement. The Belding Farms attorney told the board Tuesday the company might propose that the district also condition the FSH permit against the possibility of increased pumping resulting in excessive increase of salinity in groundwater produced by wells in Management Zone 1.

The City of Fort Stockton is another party to the settlement. Its Belding well field, water from which it desalinates via the energy-intensive reverse osmosis process, is also in that zone. The city water utility’s maximum annual production was 4,640 acre-feet in the 2011 hard drought year.

The MPGCD board plans to include in its July 18 meeting a second hearing to take public input on changing its management zone rules and on setting special conditions for the proposed new FSH permit. It is possible that the board will require a third hearing before taking action.

Tuesday’s initial hearing included a presentation on the first draft of the district’s aquifer protection proposal. Bill Hutchison, an MPGCD consultant and former head of the Texas Water Development Board Groundwater Division, said he based the drawdown thresholds on the historic lowest water levels--summertime readings in the 1970s heyday of agricultural pumping, much of which was for cotton. At those levels, according to Hutchison, there were no generalized problems with water quality or with the ability to pump wells at desired rates.

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