Texas Landowners Victorious in Groundwater-Rights Case

Published August 10, 2016

On May 27, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a ranch fighting against the City of Lubbock over the city’s attempt to access groundwater on the property without the ranch owner’s consent.

The unanimous decision expands a decades-old Texas legal precedent called the “accommodation doctrine.” The accommodation doctrine is an effort to deal with conflicts arising from split estates, wherein one party owns the surface rights to a property and another owns the mineral rights, which in Texas has traditionally meant oil and natural gas.

In Coyote Lake Ranch v. City of Lubbock, the Texas Supreme Court decided the accommodation doctrine also applies to groundwater severances.

The case arose from a conflict between the 26,600-acre Coyote Lake Ranch and the City of Lubbock, located 90 miles southeast of the ranch. In 1953, the ranch sold its groundwater rights to Lubbock, but it retained the right to use the groundwater for wells, irrigation, and oil and gas production. Over the next several decades, Lubbock drilled seven wells on the property under the confines of the agreement, but in 2012, the city announced it planned to drill as many as 80 additional wells and began mowing paths across the ranch to the perspective well sites.

Concerned Lubbock’s water expansion would harm the ranch’s cattle, hunting, and irrigation farming operations, the ranch sought an injunction to stop the work, thereby triggering the litigation that eventually wound up in the Texas Supreme Court.

 “The accommodation doctrine, based on the principle that conflicting estates should act with due regard for each other’s rights, has provided a sound and workable basis for resolving conflicts between conflicting ownership interests,” Chief Justice Michael Hecht wrote in his decision for the Texas Supreme Court. “[S]imilarities between mineral and groundwater estates, as well as in their conflicts with surface estates, persuades us to extend the accommodation doctrine to groundwater interests.”

Ruling Defends Property Rights

The ruling was welcomed by agricultural groups and property-rights advocates.

In a statement, Richard Thorpe, president of the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, called the ruling “a major victory for landowners across Texas.”

Merrill Mathews, residential scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation, said the decision provides some much-needed “clarity.”

“The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in Coyote Lake is helpful because it provided some clarity in water rights, which in Western states are extremely important,” said Mathews. “The decision also reaffirms the role of contracts in an efficiently working economy.”

Craig Rucker, executive director of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says the decision “strengthened” landowners’ rights.

“The [Texas Supreme Court] has upheld the rule of law, and in so doing, strengthened the rights—surface and subsurface—of Texas landowners,” said Rucker. “This decision benefits agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and water rights.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.