Texas surface water includes thousands of miles of rivers, lakes, basins, bays and estuaries, much of which run through privately owned property. However, the owners of that property do not necessarily own the water that crosses over it. In fact, because water is such a precious commodity in this state, the government controls and authorizes many of its uses, granting surface water rights to those who have private or public interests.
Because of the ever-rising population, the significant use of water in the agricultural industry, heavy and constant development, and new and established industries that require water for energy, maintaining a healthy supply of usable water is more and more difficult. If your business or municipality has an interest in surface water rights, you may have many questions about how to obtain and protect those rights.
The permit process
If you wish to use any surface water in the state, you must obtain authorization from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This involves submitting an application for evaluation so the TCEQ can determine whether your plans for the water use meet the government’s standards. For example, you must supply information about how your entity intends to limit water waste and prevent its pollution. You will not need a permit for any of the following water uses:
- Emergencies, such as fire departments and other municipal services
- Wildlife management, including building small dams on private property to create sanctuaries
- Domestic use, such as whatever homeowners may need for personal use or to water their gardens, for example
- Livestock needs, including impounding a limited amount of water in tanks for animals
- Other exemptions as the water code allows
It takes several months for the TCEQ to process applications, but if yours is complex or civic groups oppose your request for water rights, you may expect a much longer processing time. In fact, the state may have to hold hearings if the public contests your application.
Using your water rights
Once you obtain your permit to use the surface water, you will have a place in line until water is available for your use. You will not have unlimited use of the water, and you must file an annual report of the amount of water your entity consumes.
It is important that you are aware of those senior water holders, those who obtained permits before you, who may be downstream as well as those upstream who may use more than their share of water, leaving you unable to obtain your designated amount.