Recently the Texas Supreme Court delivered a victory to farmers and ranchers and handed a
major defeat to regulators who ignore state law. The court shut down Texas Commission on
Environmental Quality’s attempts to steal water from farmers and ranchers by putting
municipalities and steam generators ahead of agricultural uses that own senior water rights.
The court upheld the principle of “senior” water rights and denied the TCEQ justification for
violating the principle. TCEQ had applied one standard to cities and steam generation and
another to farmers, essentially ignoring the farmers’ rights.
Farmers like Frank DeStefano, a Bryan-area cotton farmer, and the Texas Farm Bureau filed suit
challenging the order that ignored the priority system and played favorites for preferred junior
users like municipalities and steam generators. Both the trial court and Court of Appeals agreed
that TCEQ did not have authority to ignore the seniority rule.
The impact of TCEQ’s rules on irrigator was severe, cutting off their water while crops were in
the field. According to DeStefano, TCEQ was “basically cutting my livelihood off.” Many
farmers lost their crops or were suddenly forced to find alternative, more expensive, sources of
water in order to continue irrigating their growing crops.
“TCEQ thought it could bully farmers, but that’s not the case,” said John Melvin, executive
director of the Brazos Valley Groundwater Rights Association. “These are farmers who have had
rights in many cases for generations, and own senior rights. Those rights belong to them by state
law, and they cannot be pushed aside for newer rights holders.”
“It remains to be seen whether cities will get the message and protect farmers’ water rights in the
future,” Melvin said. “The Brazos Valley Groundwater Rights Association stands ready to hold
local agencies and cities accountable and ensure that they negotiate with landowners in a manner
that is fair and in keeping with the spirit of the decision in this case.”
The Brazos Valley Groundwater Rights Association is a non-profit corporation committed to
protecting the groundwater rights of Texas landowners, farmers and ranchers.