Extended Balmorhea closure presents headaches for swimmers, local businesses

A swimmer jumps into the natural spring fed pool at Balmorhea State Park. Photo by Sarah M. Vasquez

FAR WEST TEXAS — Texans let out a collective groan last week as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department once again pushed back a reopening date for Balmorhea State Park and its famous swimming pool. In a news release, TPWD said the park would be closed “for the foreseeable future” and that a reopening schedule “will be announced at a later date.”

The park has been closed more or less continuously since May 2018, after workers discovered what TPWD called “structural failure.” It opened in March 2019 but closed in July of the same year.

In March, TPWD estimated renovations would last until the summer. In June, the park announced that it was adding 600 acres but wasn’t yet reopening. In the meantime, local businesses have had to grapple not only with a pandemic but without a park that once played a big role in the local economy.

The indefinite closure has been disappointing for visitors, including those from the region and tourists from across the country. Before Balmorhea closed in 2018, it regularly saw around 200,000 visitors each year.

It’s also bad news for Jeff Davis County and for nearby town of Balmorhea, where visitors to the pool often stop by to purchase snacks and swimming gear. The town had long relied on a steady stream of visitors, including to the local scuba center, a rare sight in the Chihuahuan Desert region. In 2018 alone, the park contributed around $103,000 in sales-tax dollars to Jeff Davis County, according to a study by TPWD.

First built in the 1930s and watered by nearby San Solomon Springs, the park’s flagship pool — which holds 3.5 million gallons of water — is the largest spring-fed pool in the world. Built during the New Deal as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, it later became part of the Texas State Parks system in the 1960s.

Recently, however, the pool has fallen on hard times. After it closed for repairs in 2018, local historian Joe Nick Patoski warned in The Texas Observer that state parks were “in peril,” pointing to “deteriorating” and “underfunded” public lands. “Without major funding from the Legislature,” he wrote, TPWD was forced to rely on “creative land swaps, public-private partnerships and philanthropy.”

When reached for comment, a TPWD spokesperson said Balmorhea had “dedicated state funding” and “generous donors.” But “due to the complexity of the projects, it’s taken full park closures to completely address” the repairs, she said.

Instead of funding, the spokesperson said the latest delays were tied to the coronavirus pandemic. She pointed to shortages in building materials like stone and steel as well as to COVID infections among repair crews, which she said had forced TPWD to “demobilize” workers as they isolated after exposures and recovered from infections.

In the meantime, the region has to do without the usual swimmers. “We love Balmorhea tourism, because it sends traffic through Ft. Davis on Highway 17,” said Melissa Henderson, the executive director of the Ft. Davis Chamber of Commerce. “People are in Big Bend, and they want to go swimming before they leave or on their way. Ft. Davis gets that thru traffic.”

“It definitely makes a difference for our shopping and restaurants,” Henderson added, noting that area hotels also “got a lot of overnights” from tourists visiting the park. But while the Big Bend tourists are still coming, no one is visiting Balmorhea these days.

Also feeling the pinch is the town Balmorhea itself, said Pat Brijalba, treasurer and secretary for the Balmorhea Economic Development Corporation. In normal times, the town’s economic fortunes were also boosted by events like an annual softball tournament. But when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the region last year, it nixed those public events.

Making matters worse, the oil industry — always a fickle revenue stream in the region — has recently experienced a downturn. “When the oil field was here, we didn’t even need tourism,” he said. “They were very good for the community, as far as [money spent] at stores and restaurants and RV parks.” But now, like the pool tourists, the oilfield workers were mostly gone.

Brijalba admits that tourists and swimmers were never a big revenue source in the winter — though there were the occasional scuba divers. But after a rough economic year, and with health officials finally distributing vaccines in the region, “we were looking forward to getting back tourism from the state park.”

Brijalba hopes the park will reopen soon. But as to when exactly that will happen, Brijalba says it’s anybody’s guess.

“It’s very frustrating at this point,” he said. “We’re in bad shape.”