Our Water Matters

An introduction

 In Marfa, it is often said that there’s an ocean of water under Presidio County. Unfortunately, this is just another Texas tall tale. The good news is: we’ve been lucky so far. The remoteness of our region, the extremely sparse population and the relative lack of industrial activity have shielded us from the aquifer depletion confronting our Permian Basin neighbors and our friends in the metropolis of El Paso. But if the stresses caused by the pandemic and recent extreme weather events have taught us anything, it is that we must expect the unexpected, and the “unexpected” may be closer than we think.

For example, the City of El Paso owns a large swath of land in the northwest corner of Presidio County that will eventually be used for water extraction and export to that growing city. A 43-mile easement intended for the export of natural gas to Mexico runs through the Big Bend and could easily be repurposed to export water out of the region. All of this is perfectly legal and readily foreseeable. Meanwhile, we face the potential for changes in rainfall patterns, hotter and longer summers, and increased periods of extreme drought. Based on the fulfillment of other prophecies by climate scientists, these changes in our regional weather are all but certain to occur. These are facts. And though they may make us fearful of the future, the sooner we face them, the better.

A basic understanding of water law is essential to solving the problems confronting us. Much of Texas’ legal framework around water stems from our state’s history and a series of laws and legal decisions that have been handed down over the years. These decisions have given rise to complex systems of management that can seem boring to some and overwhelming to most, but we ignore them at our peril. Our Water Matters will consult with various experts to explore this history and seek to explain these laws. The aim is to enable the average person to understand how our laws work and the tools available for groundwater protection and conservation.

Of course, natural systems don’t care about rules and tend to follow their own laws. As a result, “Our Water Matters will also delve into the science of water to help you understand where our water comes from, how the hydrologic cycle works, and ways that we as humans can enhance and conserve this vital resource. This column will also provide insight into water issues in other parts of the world as they relate to the challenges we face in the Big Bend. The intention is to spur innovative thinking and problem-solving right here at home.

The stakeholder most affected by local water management decisions is you: the citizen. Our Water Matters is intended to illuminate the many issues surrounding water in the hope of creating an informed consensus. With any luck, we will succeed at not only safeguarding local control of our water but also as a role model for the rest of our state and other regions of the arid West.

Water is unique in that it is at once vital to sustaining life, but is also a commodity to be bought and sold. “Our Water Matters” is intended to deepen your understanding and acceptance of this reality without the need for unrealistic changes to our laws or drastic drops in our standard of living. With proper use of the tools at our disposal backed by a broad consensus across the region, there is every reason to believe that we can build on the Big Bend’s heritage of resilience, self-reliance and cooperation to secure a stable water future for generations to come.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as Board Chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013.