Water Rites

Trans-Pecos ranchers grapple with El Paso over the West’s most valuable resource.

November 1991By Comments

My great granddaddy Gus Goynes was killed by his brother-in-law in a fight over a well,” a young bearded rancher named Tom Nance told the folks fil-ing into the Van Horn courtroom. Catfish farms and developments threatening to foul Barton Springs may be news in San Antonio and Austin, but Nance’s tale is a reminder that out in far West Texas, water wars have been a fact of life since pioneers began trickling into the Trans-Pecos region 130 years ago. The latest controversy, though, involves an outsider with a thirst capable of sucking the arid region dry—the City of El Paso.

That’s a prospect dire enough to draw Nance and 51 ranchers, farmers, and townsfolk from three vast, sparsely populated counties to the Culberson County courthouse to hear about El Paso’s pending purchase of Antelope Valley Farms, a 25,000-acre spread east of Valentine in the shadow of the Davis Mountains. El Paso doesn’t covet the land so much as it wants the ancient pool of water known as the Ryan Bolson, an aquifer that lies hundreds of feet beneath Antelope Valley. If tests this fall deem the farm’s water quality and quantity acceptable, El Paso will be free to build a pipeline and use the farm’s 28 wells and any other wells the city might drill to pump up to 80 million gallons of water a day for its citizens, the El Paso Herald-Post proclaimed.

People living in the Trans-Pecos became alarmed about the deal, especially after the Herald-Post’s article, which also noted that the city could drain the Ryan Bolson in just seventeen years at that rate. That prompted county judges John Conoly of Culberson County, Bob Dillard of Jeff Davis, and Monroe Elms of Presidio to organize town meetings in Van Horn and Fort Davis in late September.

“We want to try to determine what, if anything, we can do about El Paso taking our water,” Conoly said in his opening remarks at Van Horn, home of the “Best Drinking Water in West Texas,” according to the sign at the edge of town. What the audience learned was that the values they held to be sacrosanct—property rights, the ability to use all the groundwater they wished as long as it came from their land, and the willing seller—willing buyer credo—also allowed El Paso to do whatever it damn well pleased with its water. The ranchers of this mythic part of the state would either have to change their attitudes and their laws or face extinction.

Various methods to stop the city were suggested, ranging from gentle persuasion and lawsuits to dynamite and the Mafia. Mark Hoelscher, the president of the Texas Groundwater Conservation Districts Association, and Jake Payton, from the Irion County Water Conservation District, told the gathering that landowners could form a water district to control how much water is taken over a given period. Hoelscher maintained that a water district should be the first priority, but he conceded that it wasn’t the panacea. A water district could slow down El Paso’s pumping, but it couldn’t stop it.

“Are they going to bleed us dry over ten years or over forty years?” asked Monroe Elms, who was backed by three Presidio County commissioners. If a pipeline was built, he argued, El Paso would have both the means and the reason to buy every available source of groundwater between the Davis Mountains and the New Mexico border.

El Paso has problems too. It is a desert city with a rapidly growing population. The flow from its traditional water source, the Rio Grande, has steadily declined over the past century, a situation exacerbated 75 years ago by the construction of Elephant Butte reservoir, one hundred miles upstream in New Mexico. If El Paso had bought into the reservoir then, it wouldn’t now be draining its groundwater sources, the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons, and having to look elsewhere for more water.

That bleak reality contrasts with a brighter future, contends Ed Archuleta, the general manager of the El Paso Public Service Board. The proof, he says, is a fifty-year plan that was recently implemented, designed to meet the projected needs of 1.3 million people. The plan includes recycling 8 million gallons of treated wastewater into El Paso’s Hueco aquifer every day, implementing rate increases and rationing ordinances designed to reduce overall demand by 20 percent, evaluating contingency options such as desalination plants—should they become cost-effective—and, of course, pumping.

For now, Archuleta says, exploitation of Antelope Valley, which El Paso will purchase for a mere $2 million, is highly unlikely. A 130-mile pipeline and pump stations would have to be built at a cost of almost $200 million, a debt that Archuleta says the Public Service Board can’t afford. “But we can hold the property and manage it indefinitely,” he said. That would provide a hedge in case the service board’s fifty-year plan falls short of projections.

The evening meeting in Fort Davis was more somber than the Van Horn meeting, which had ended a few hours earlier. Many of the hundred residents gathered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church parish hall were clearly not pleased to hear what the panel of experts had to say. They swallowed hard when several declared state regulation of groundwater inevitable. They flinched when they heard the e word (“environmentalist”) brought up and blanched when someone suggested that, as a last resort, they could find some endangered critter along the pipeline route and invoke the Endangered Species Act to halt the project.

The three-and-a-half-hour barrage of facts left the crowd stunned and tired. Chile Ridley, 43, who owns, by his estimation, several thousand acres across U.S. 90 from Antelope Valley, saw the looming specter of El Paso and the proposed legal responses as another example of what’s wrong with the modern world. “I hate bureaucracies,” he said after the meeting. “I hate someone a hundred or a thousand miles away trying to tell me how to run my life.” Having his wells run dry, though, was an even uglier scenario.

“Up until tonight, I believed that the right to capture groundwater was an inalienable right,” Ridley said. “But I have never been faced with this prospect. When something your neighbor does affects you, I say maybe we should look at the way things are currently designed. As property owners, we’re caretakers and stewards of the land. El Paso wouldn’t conserve it. I’m not at all clear what is the right thing. I’m just concerned about waking up some morning and not having water to drink.” Lynn Crittendon, who also owns land near Antelope Valley, questioned the accuracy of the figures being tossed around, but he was worried. “As a neighbor,” he said, “I hope they act responsibly.”

A legal challenge seems out of the question in light of the counties’ minuscule budgets compared to El Paso’s (the city spent $7.8 million on legal and engineering fees in an unsuccessful attempt to import water from New Mexico). Invoking the Endangered Species Act would subject all the landowners in the region to further scrutiny from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has already created resentment since an endangered plant called pondweed was identified in the Davis Mountains.

If the meetings established a consensus, it was to work with El Paso rather than to fight the city, using the Rio Grande Council of Governments as the forum. “It doesn’t pay to meet them at the county line,” admitted Bob Dillard. “We can’t compete with El Paso.” John Conoly wasn’t quite so conciliatory. “If we don’t hang together, we’re going to hang separately,” he warned. “If they get yours, it’s just a few miles to get ours.”

Ed Archuleta acknowledged the fears but maintained a realistic approach to the task that he faces. “We live in the desert,” he pointed out. “Unfortunately, water has been plentiful and relatively inexpensive in the past, but that’s changing rapidly.”

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