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The Future of Balmorhea

There’s been a lot of hang-wringing over what could happen to one of the state’s most treasured pools in the midst of the latest oil discovery, but an environmental research group is optimistic about the outcome.

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Photo by Sarah Greene Reed

Measured solely by the bottom line, vast oil discoveries are always good news for Texas. The recent fracking boom supercharged the Texas economy, especially in oil and gas hubs like Midland-Odessa, Houston, and—thanks to its proximity to Eagle Ford—San Antonio. All of those regions recently enjoyed construction booms, the additions of tens of thousands of good jobs, rising property values, and boosted tax revenues.

And up until now, most (but certainly not all) of the land from which these fuels has been extracted is among the least glamorous locales in the state: the rugged, mesquite and prickly pear scrub southwest of San Antonio—beloved only by ranchers and deer hunters—and the Permian Basin, which, if not for oil, would be the Lone Star State’s Empty Quarter.

So though we have heard lots of concern over fracking’s effect on air and water quality, its apparent link to earthquakes, and the rising traffic and Friday night crime every boomtown attracts, we’ve heard relatively little about what a mammoth oil play could do to the physical appearance on the state. Put another way, fracking has had little impact on Texas tourism or sightseeing.

That could all change with this latest gargantuan find: Houston-based Apache Oil’s Alpine High Field, which is mostly in western Reeves County, could hold as many as three billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion feet of natural gas (worth up to $80 billion), all of which would take up to 3,000 wells to extract. That vigorous extraction will be taking place very near one of the state’s most beautiful and even mystical spots: the chilly, Depression Era swimming pool built atop San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea State Park.

Archaeologists believe that paleo-Indians such as the Clovis Mammoth Hunters camped near the lush oasis, and Mescalero Apaches watered their horses there millennia later. Mexican settlers channelized the spring’s 28 million gallon-per-day flow, diverting it to nourish crops they sold to the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Davis. And in the depths of the Depression, FDR’s New Deal Civilian Conservation Corps built the pool and vintage motor court that now stand on the site.

Today, its cool waters are home to two endangered species of fish, crawfish, freshwater snails, snakes and turtles, and with its maximum depth of 25 feet right there in the desert, it is one of the most surreal spots to scuba dive in North America. It’s consistently listed among the top swimming holes in the state. Last year a record 135,000 visitors took the waters there. So will it really be fracked to smithereens on the altar of the almighty dollar?

That is the fear of many locals and many, many more on social media, including an anti-drilling petition signed by just over 6,000 worried devotees of the pool, a not insignificant number, given that Reeves County is home to only about 14,000 people total.

In March, when news of Apache’s find was trickling out to the community, a few area residents sounded off at a school board meeting. “Balmorhea is a gem, we have things these other West Texas towns don’t have and it would be a shame to lose that over money that’s not going to be there forever,” said one resident, according to CBS 7.

But the beauty isn’t the only thing that could be lost. “You have a very, very sensitive ecology out there, a cavernous geology, natural fault lines in the area and these pools are home to a number of endangered species,” says Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand of UT-Arlington’s CLEAR, the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation. His group studies the environmental impacts of fracking, and Hildenbrand attended that school board meeting at the invitation of Balmorhea school board member Paul Matta. “From the perspective of many Texans, this is the last place you would want to bring this highly industrious anthropogenic process, like why are you guys doing this here?”

Well, money, of course. “Clearly Apache thinks they know something that I don’t know, and that others don’t know, and that is that there is a tremendous reserve of hydrocarbons in that region,” Hildenbrand says. Balmorhea’s environs had long been considered barren of extractable oil.

Hildenbrand has been assessing “unconventional oil and gas development” for five years now and has seen its downside, notably in the Cline Shale play east of Midland. There, CLEAR found that water contamination did occur when multiple wells were clustered around their sampling sites. On the other hand, some of the contamination diminished fairly rapidly, according to the study.

There is also the danger of gas seeping into the water table. “When you are drilling for oil in these shale plays, up with it comes natural gas,” Hildenbrand says. “As has been show in the Marcellus and Barnett shales, and other shale plays all across the country.”

But Apache is saying all the right things. They promise not to drill on or under the town of Balmorhea or Balmorhea State Park. To slake the almighty thirst of all those wells, they vow to truck in brackish, non-potable water and to recycle as much of it as possible, the better to minimize harm on the oasis’s precious water table. They say the play is in its earliest stages, and that they want to engage in a dialogue with Reeves County every step of the way.

Up to now, they’ve also been listening to Hildenbrand’s group.  “They’ve shown a tremendous level of interest in cooperating with [CLEAR],” he says. “We’ve dealt with a number of oil and gas companies, and Apache really appears to care about the well-being of those people and maintaining pristine environmental quality out there, and they say they want to work with a dynamic research team that will report environmental quality in an objective and unbiased manner. So, I’m hopeful that we will be able to go out there and do lots of sampling and monitoring, and hopefully we would find out there was nothing in the water and everyone’s concerns could be eased. But in the event that we do find abnormalities then we have a moral obligation to tell the people in that community right away and we would then have to implement a remediation strategy to meet the problem head-on.”

Hildenbrand goes to great lengths to describe CLEAR as honest brokers—neither environmentalist scolds nor shills for Big Oil, and he believes that Apache understands that and is willing to deal with it, come what may.

“With an issue this contentious, there will be a perception issue. You have the industry. They go out and collect samples and analyze them and find nothing,” Hildenbrand says. “Everyone is just going to say ‘That’s because you didn’t want to find anything.’ And the same goes for environmental groups. If they find problems people will say it’s in their best interest to find problems. [Apache] understands that we are neutral and unbiased. And our research is never going to change regardless of where our funding comes from. In fact, in 2011 we funded our first research project with our own personal savings.”

All of which sounds great. Apache will do its best not to ruin one of our state’s most enchanting treasures, and CLEAR, should they come up with the funding (a prospect Hildenbrand is cautiously optimistic about), would be monitoring them all along the way.

So, all will be hunky-dory, right? Whew. Maybe. And with that good-intention-paved road to hell and all, and such a complex project sprawling all around that delicate aquifer, and with so many billions flying around, would it really be casting aspersions on either Apache or CLEAR to simply cynically wonder, “What could possibly go wrong?”

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  • biff

    It doesn’t matter how careful Apache claims they will be. History is littered with people with the best of intentions that got away from them. They will use contractors and then be free of the safeguards, and when something happens they will say “It wasn’t us, it was them.”

    It all comes down to you can’t control what happens underground, especially due to the geology in the region. You can find oil and gas elsewhere, you can’t find another Balmorhea.

    • Tejasguitarman

      It sounds like the fox sweet talking it’s way into guarding the hen house. There are two state parks in that area & both are unique to Texas. I would think that all Texans should have a say in this as they’ve had skin in this game long before Apache. Some things are more precious than monetary value.

    • SuzyQue

      Those are the incidents you hear about. All of the good, successful, non-harmful events – you never hear about them. What kind of story would that be: “Everything worked out exactly like the company said it would”?

      • biff

        Those companies would trumpet such events to the heavens. I know this, because Devon puts puff pieces into the local newspaper about their attempts at water recycling.

  • WestTexan70

    I’ve lived in Texas all my life and in West Texas most of those sixty-something years. It’s been my experience that if there’s a way to get an extra penny out of an oil or gas field, Apache will find it and damn the consequences. That’s the way energy companies work. And as soon as the field is no longer viable, they’ll pack up and leave the residents with the mess. Of course, most of the people in this area who have signed the petition the article mentioned voted for the right-wing politicians who passed the law last session that doesn’t allow local areas to regulate fracking. So, I guess they will be responsible for the ruination of the springs.

    It may not happen in the next five to ten years, but Balmorhea is doomed unless they are stopped by the law. I’d like to be optimistic, but as I said, I’ve lived in Texas for more than sixty years — I have no reason for optimism.

    • Tejasguitarman

      Guess that you’ve driven through Big Lake or Ft Stockton up through Pecos. That activity & resultant environment should not be introduced in Balmorhea & Davis Mountains region.

      • Andrew Cobb

        I have to whole-heartedly agree with you. Lived in the Ft. Stockton area a few years back and visited Balmorhea and the Davis Mountains State Park. Both are absolutely a gem in that area of the state. Stockton is nothing but a dump and the industry does not attract the best of society. The financial impacts of the LOSS of tourism due to the oil drilling will be MORE than any gain from the benefits of the drilling. Turning that beautiful unique desert landscape to ruin will be the worst thing we could ever do.

  • Felix Sjostrom

    This is all empty talk. What matters is, the landowners din the Balmorhea area, east through Limpia Creek and around Barilla Mountains signed on the dotted line, so fraking is coming. Best hope is for production in those wells to decline rapidly, as it usually happens, and for the frackers to go elsewhere.

  • Bob Beal

    “Permian Basin, which, if not for oil, would be the Lone Star State’s Empty Quarter.”

    No, that would be southern West Texas — and there’s a new ETP gas pipeline running through it (Trans-Pecos Pipeline)

  • Jon

    If some of the nine test wells that Apache hit on (out of 19 drilled) are only producing 8 percent oil — with the remaining 92 percent natural gas and natural gas liquids, they’re not going to be drilling out all that fast at current prices (the further away you get from the Davis, Guadalupe and Glass Mountains in drilling the Delaware Basin, the more oil and less natural gas there is in the formations.

    Drilling near the mountains south of Fort Stockton and west of Pecos pretty much died out in 2008, when natural gas prices cratered, and never came back like oil did — that’s why Apache got their leases on the cheap, because the sites are along a roughly 60-mile line in the shadow of the Davis Mountains. They still have to show what the produce has more oil and hydrocarbon condensate in it than just ‘dry gas’, on natural gas prices are going to have to rise to make drilling economically viable).

  • Mary Kraemer

    Oh sacred waters of Balmorhea of San Solomon Springs, we look to thee for guidance. Your watery beauty and clear springs, nourish our soul. Your sparkling blue green color and smell is a wonderment in the desert. We are all in need of your cleansing and hydrating experience in our disconnected lives. All those who go there and the creatures that live in you know of it.
    I need you to connect those who seem themselves separate from needing the healing waters.
    I need you to uncloud the eyes of those who can’t see the perilousness of fracking in your home.
    I need you to quench the thirst of those who have greed for oil and riches. The richness of you is a wealth immeasurable.
    I need you to give depth of understanding to those who miss the value of your beauty.
    May our thirst for oil be quenched by your waters. May their understanding of this danger become crystal clear as your waters.
    Thank you Balmorhea for enriching this life!

  • WISEONE

    Frack, Crack and don’t look back.

  • Paul Matta

    I live in Balmorhea and I’m very concerned about the future. Undoubtedly, the people here, some more than others, will experience a very positive economic impact. But is that the only impact that will be felt? I think some people aren’t looking past their wallets. I’m not saying they don’t care but that they, perhaps, aren’t aware of the danger that comes with oil and gas drilling.

    You look at what’s happened in other communities where oil drilling has come and gone or still remains and you have to wonder are we immune? No, we are not. We will be impacted environmentally and health-wise. I can’t say to what degree but when you consider that Apache estimates they will need up to 3000 wells to extract all the oil and gas they say exists here then believing everything will go on as usual or that there will be minimal impact is a pipe dream. There will be change and it won’t all be good.

    As we now know, CLEAR and Apache have formed a partnership for conducting water testing. So, I just want to say to both CLEAR and Apache that you owe to the people of Balmorhea, Toyah, Brogado, Saragosa and those that live outside and between these communities water testing conducted with the highest level of integrity and honesty.

    Apache, you must allow CLEAR to conduct it’s water testing program without interference. Stay out of their way completely and don’t impede them from conducting their research the way they’ve conducted it since the very first day of their existence. Respect their independence.

    And, CLEAR, remember that your loyalty is to the TRUTH. Not environmentalists. Not even to the people who live here. And certainly not with Apache. Your loyalty is to the TRUTH whatever that turns out to be.