SEALY, Texas - Mary Chandler for decades has prayed for rain, but cautiously. God willing, the Brazos River won't rise and flood the Austin County ranch where she raises cattle and harvests pecans.
Her water worries these days go beyond the vagaries of nature, and she has put her faith in a lawyer to address a new potential threat.
A Houston-based company has requested permits to tap a deep underground reservoir in the rural area and send the water by pipeline to thirsty Fort Bend County cities. The Houston Chronicle reported Chandler and other ranchers are opposed to the plan, claiming major pumping of the aquifer will rob them of the water beneath their land and harm their livelihoods.
"The whole operation is dependent on water," Chandler, 70, said of the ranch, which has been in her family's hands since 1885. "I have children and grandchildren, and we intend to keep this place going."
There is ceaseless wrangling over water in Texas, but tensions have been high when it comes to groundwater. Fights have broken out near Austin and San Antonio, where water marketers and utilities are working feverishly to secure large volumes beneath rural counties for fast-growing communities.
The primary reason for the conflicts is the unique way the state views groundwater.
While Texas controls surface water, state law allows landowners to pump as much water from beneath their land as they desire, as long as it is for beneficial use. What's more, the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that landowners may seek compensation if government actions limit their access to it.
That's created new questions about who owns that water and how much of it they may use. "There's a lot to be litigated," said Mary Kelly, an Austin attorney specializing in water.
The newest front is the Bluebonnet Groundwater Conservation District, which manages the water supply beneath Austin, Grimes, Walker and Waller counties.
Electro Purification LLC has asked the district for the right to pump 22,500 acre-feet of water per year and ship it about 25 miles to Richmond and Rosenberg.
Currently, the district permits the pumping of about 87,000 acre-feet per year of groundwater, but only about 18,000 acre-feet is actually pumped. An acre-foot is roughly equal to the amount of water three typical Texas households use in a year.
Zach Holland, the groundwater district's general manager, said there is enough water available to meet the request. "The reason why this is a contested issue isn't the availability of water, but what will be the impacts," he said.
At this point, Holland doesn't know the exact consequences because the district has yet to analyze them. But residents are worried that the extra pumping could lower the water table, forcing them to dig deeper wells and causing their land to sink, a geological condition known as subsidence.
They have asked that the permit go through a trial-like hearing before state administrative law judges before the district considers approval.
"This is an extreme amount of water to pump," said Chandler, one of the residents who requested the hearing.
Electro Purification says that the proposed pumping will have no effect on shallow wells nearby and will not cause appreciable, if any, subsidence, according to its permit application. Company officials refused to comment, citing the upcoming hearing.
Ironically, the company is pursuing the water for communities facing new pumping limits in Fort Bend County.
The district, Holland said, has options: It could grant, deny or modify the application, allowing the company to pump less water than it requested.
Austin County Judge Carolyn Bilski also has urged state lawmakers to move forward with plans to build the Allens Creek Reservoir in a pocket of low-lying land near Sealy. The lake could satisfy suburban needs without pumping more groundwater, she wrote.
Talk of building a lake began in the early 1970s when Houston Lighting and Power proposed a nearby nuclear power plant, which would need water for cooling.
The nuclear plant was never built, and the Brazos River Authority eventually purchased the property. The city of Houston later signed on as a majority partner.
But Houston, with its water needs met, is in no rush and convinced lawmakers two years ago to push back the deadline for starting construction of the $223 million project from 2018 to 2025.
Ronald Kaiser, a professor of water law at Texas A&M University, said it's unlikely the lake will be built if there are other options. Water marketers and cities find groundwater attractive because it's high quality, difficult to pollute and does not evaporate like water in lakes and rivers, he said.
"Building a reservoir is hugely expensive," he said. "While buying some land and putting a well in the ground is expensive, it is not prohibitive."
Holland, the district general manager, said he has not received any other request the size of Electro Purification's application, but acknowledges that could change.
"I would not be surprised because of all the growth," Holland said, "but it will greatly depend on which way this case goes."