THE ROUTE INTO THE WILDERNESS southeast of El Paso does not, at first glance, give the impression of a road to riches. A dirt track crosses a cattle guard and heads into the desert, just a few steps from Interstate 10. A cold wind is hurrying out of the west, but the waist-high creosote brush is so rigid that it takes no notice. The brutal climate has bleached most of the color from its leaves, so that what is left is the most godforsaken hue of green imaginable.
The last thing that would occur to someone driving down this desolate road, where the only other sign of civilization is an occasional beer bottle or discarded tire, is that people would covet this parched land for its water. But they do. It is part of the largest tract of state-owned land in far West Texas. A Midland-based company called Rio Nuevo, Ltd. has a controversial proposal on the table to lease state lands in the region—around 355,000 acres in all—from the General Land Office, after which the company will drill