Processing Groundwater: An Analysis of Groundwater Knowledge Infrastructure in Texas

David Rheams

Major Professor: Paul Smith, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Tim Gibson, Alex Monea

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 12, 2018, 01:00 PM to 03:00 PM


This dissertation traces the creation of groundwater knowledge infrastructure in Texas to uncover the impact of groundwater modeling software on groundwater conflicts during the 2010-2014 drought. The relationship between political and scientific processes is key to recognizing how groundwater is distributed and, in some cases, depleted entirely in a state where perennial droughts are expected. Equally important to the production of an aquifer model are a consideration of issues of power and authority, which often lie unexamined. I present three primary theses: first, groundwater is translated into economic terms when it is presented to the public in the local media, prioritizing the state economy above all other considerations. Second, the politics of managing groundwater shapes the scientific processes required to create groundwater models. Third, the data and scientific apparatus used to forecast groundwater availability enables political authority. Developing groundwater forecasts requires expert hydrologists, specialized software, thousands of water well measurements, multiple government agencies, and the political will and funding to create the model. Hydrology studies the behavior of water as it moves through the water cycle, but the hydrological concepts are converted into economic language, risk management, and state laws during the political processes and public communication. The conversion marks a gap in the way the public understands groundwater. I conclude that reconciling the gap in public communications and groundwater planning is critical if Texas is to have a socially equitable distribution of groundwater that prioritizes sustainable groundwater practices.