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ENVIRONMENT : Huge Catfish Farm Could Tip the Scales of Texas Water Law : The gushing well that feeds the operation has rekindled a long-running controversy over public needs and the rights of landowners.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Past a long fence dotted by clumps of cactus and beyond a couple of turns in a dusty farm road, Ronnie Pucek hit a big gusher and a bigger controversy.

It wasn’t oil he found, but water. Lots of it. When drillers made the strike in the spring, it was something of huge proportions, a fountain that spurted some 50 feet high and nearly washed away the drilling rig. It is believed to be one of the world’s largest man-made artesian wells, producing about 30,000 gallons of water a minute.

Now Pucek, his well and a catfish farm he made from an old dairy farm are at the center of a controversy that has crystallized the water debate here and led to a turning point in Texas water law.

The sheer size of the catfish farm got people’s attention. Pucek uses 43 million gallons a day--enough for a city of 220,000 and a fourth of what nearby San Antonio uses.

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Both Pucek and San Antonio rely on the same water supply: the Edwards Aquifer, an underground pocket 175 miles long that is the sole water source for 1.4 million people in the area.

Many believe that Pucek’s business is wasteful. But it is not illegal.

Texas and California, the states that are the two biggest users of ground water, are the only Western states that have no statewide ground water regulations. Texas regulates surface water, such as rivers and lakes, but not ground water. Landowners in the state have virtually unlimited rights to pump water.

“Very few people think that it’s good public policy,” said Dan Tarlock, a professor who specializes in water law at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Kent College of Law. “Everybody can just pump until it’s gone.”

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Pucek, 33, argues that the water is his. He invested about $2 million, took the risk of drilling for the water and now should reap the rewards, he says.

“Are you telling me that I don’t have the right to use my own property?” he asks.

Some speculate that Pucek isn’t so much interested in raising catfish as in selling water. After all, his catfish farm is named Living Waters Artesian Springs Ltd, and he has often asked: “Why should I have to give the water to the people of San Antonio for free?”

The questions being raised over the catfish farm are part of an old debate. One memorable Texas case, decided by the state Supreme Court nearly 40 years ago, was brought by Clayton Williams Sr., the father of the state’s 1990 Republican candidate for governor. After Williams began pumping water from under his land to irrigate his cotton fields, neighboring Comanche Springs in the western Texas town of Ft. Stockton went dry. Williams won the case and the right to pump the water.

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But last month, prompted in part by the controversy over Pucek’s farm, Texas Atty. Gen. Dan Morales issued an opinion that broke with a century and a half of water law. His opinion, saying that Texas has the authority to regulate underground reservoirs, means that the government can keep landowners from wasting or polluting ground water.

Morales didn’t address how this would affect the landowners’ time-honored “right of capture.” If regulations are imposed, challenges are expected as water users question whether such rules are beyond the state’s authority and what constitutes wasteful water use.

Negotiations among some of the big users of Edwards Aquifer water began in November in hopes that an agreement can be reached before February, when the state has threatened to impose a plan.

Traditionally, much of the confrontation over water use has been between rural and urban interests. But in the controversy over the catfish farm, some traditional enemies have common interests.

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Regulation would likely limit Pucek’s water use, but it would probably limit San Antonio’s water use as well. Fees could also be established, an affront to a city that gets its water free.

Farmers, of course, want to retain their right to control their ground water. But that also has its hazards. Already, Pucek’s neighbors say their wells have slowed since the big strike.

In October, two San Antonio-based water groups sued Pucek, charging that his farm wastes water and contaminates the neighboring Medina River. As a result, Pucek shut off his well on Nov. 25 after a harvest of catfish. The shutdown, he vows, is only temporary, part of an agreement to close the operation while he awaits word on permits from state and federal environmental agencies.

But he and other observers expect a drawn-out debate on the issue. “I’m only 33 years old,” Pucek said. “They’ve been talking about this since before I was born. Now, just because I’ve got a million-dollar well, everybody’s talking about water again.”

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