A nonprofit’s ambitious plan to restore a once-abundant spring in Fort Stockton

Photo by Howard Pecos / A 1938 photo shows Comanche Springs pool, where for decades, locals and tourists gathered to take a swim in Fort Stockton. Today the pool is dry and an Olympic-sized chlorine pool sits in its place, but a nonprofit’s effort to restore the spring could lead to the revival of the natural bottom pool.

FORT STOCKTON – It’s been nearly 60 years since Fort Stockton has seen Comanche Springs flow year round. The town was founded as a military fort around one of the state’s biggest natural springs, but as agriculture arrived to the region, Fort Stockton watched as farmers pumped the aquifer that fed Comanche Springs until it no longer flowed through the cienegas and natural bottom pool that the area was known for.

Every fall the spring shows signs of life, pushing out flows of water when the farmers slow their pumping after the spring and summer crop seasons. When the water makes its annual comeback, the community returns to take advantage of it.

“We know when the park has the spring flowing, people tend to draw to the park. The kids are playing in the water, crawfish fishing, it’s pretty busy,” said 34-year-old Fort Stockton Convention & Visitors Bureau Director Crystal Lopez, who has lived in the town all her life. In her industry, seeing the springs flow and a natural pool revitalized could mean more dollars spent in the area by visitors. “I do believe that bringing the springs back would be a tourism draw,” she said.

Cue the Texas Water Trade, a nonprofit with a plan to make the natural spring flow again by using a market-based approach. The group, with support from the city’s convention and visitors bureau, commissioned a study that will help the water group determine how much water needs to be conserved in the aquifer for the Comanche Springs to flow year round.

In Texas law, which differs from most other western states, the right to pump water out of aquifers is preserved through a court case that upheld the right to “capture” water under one’s own property, even to the detriment of the neighbors. To keep water in the ground, the Texas Water Trade must entice pump owners through other means.

The group’s ambitious plan is to pay farmers to use less water. That can range from helping them update their irrigation equipment for efficiency to offering cold hard cash to grow fewer crops or grow different crops that are not as water-intensive.

Sharlene Leurig, CEO of the Texas Water Trade, said that the Comanche Springs project represents “a ghost of Christmas future in a way,” or a warning of what is to come across Texas as the population growth drives water usage up further. They hope restoring the spring can be a symbol that “we’re not too far gone in Texas,” to revitalize water resources, she said.

Remie Ramos, the city’s economic development director, is interested in the restoration of Comanche Springs, but worries that farmers might inadvertently be enticed away from growing a crop that has a proven track record of selling well. According to the water trade, it intends to restore the “historic gem” of the springs without compromising agricultural productivity.

One thing Ramos doesn’t debate is the benefits of improving agricultural infrastructure in the area. “The efficiency part I’m 100% on board with. Even if the efficiency does not help the total restoration of the spring, one thing it will help no matter what is that it will still give us the ability to save our natural resources,” he said.

Fort Stockton is proud of its spring-connected history, still celebrating it with the annual Fort Stockton Water Carnival, which last weekend marked its 85th year. Pageants, performances, sandlot baseball and a synchronized swimming event filled the schedule.

Since the area’s industry focus has shifted to oil and gas, it suffers more from the boom and bust cycles, but by amplifying tourism, the area could create new income streams that sustain it through the ups and downs of the Permian Basin.

Lopez knows a number of locals who support the pool revival and said it could become an attractive reason for tourists in West Texas to add a stop in Fort Stockton to their trip. “I do believe we would hope to grab some of the tourists [to the Big Bend and Balmorhea] to take a day here to do scenic tours, look at our fort and of course the springs, and then go on to their next thing,” she said. “When people are traveling, they like to travel towards the water, so having that aspect would really help us.”