Our Water Matters

Terlingua Ranch – In pursuit of a showcase desert water system

Located in the Christmas Mountains in southern Brewster County, Terlingua Ranch is home to about 5,000 property owners. The Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch, Inc. (POATRI) operates a potable water supply system certified by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the 425-acre Terlingua Ranch Lodge Resort, which offers 32 rooms, 20 RV sites and 10 campsites. The same system provides a free daily allotment of 25 gallons of potable water to each landowner.

According to the TCEQ, any potable water system that has “at least 15 service connections” or serves “at least 25 individuals for at least 60 days out of the year” is classified as a “public water system.” Such systems are subject to certain monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure that potable water quality meets defined safety standards.

In response to these requirements and the area’s notoriously brackish groundwater, POATRI decided to get serious about its water future and began investing a percentage of lodge revenues in a water fund a little over a year ago. The fund has already accumulated about $45,000, some of which has been tapped for a new chlorinator and mixing tank. New filtration and treatment tanks are also being installed to remove most of the harmful minerals from the well water and reduce mineral buildup to prolong the life of the water lines.

At present, the association operates one potable water well that pumps 15 gallons/minute and a couple of non-potable wells. The option of bringing another potable water well into operation is being considered. A second well would enable the system to switch between the two wells to allow time for each well to recharge, ensuring a better and more reliable water supply. According to Larry Sunderland, who serves on the POATRI Board of Directors, “The question the association is constantly facing is what’s the available water supply.”

The question is not an idle one. South Brewster County, including the nearby Terlingua Ghost Town, has seen a boom in short-term rentals and long-term residents in recent years, while neighboring Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park remain a huge draw to outside visitors. A better understanding of the region’s groundwater will become increasingly important if current trends continue.

Toward this end, the association has invested nearly $9,000 in monitoring equipment for its potable and non-potable wells. Sunderland also believes that the aim should be to reduce reliance on the association’s non-potable system by making better use of graywater and rainwater. “We should aim to be a safety net, not the only source of water. In times of drought even the most independent and responsible owner needs assistance.” But the focus should be: “How do we help build resilience? How do we make water available nearer to where it is needed? It won’t involve more wells. But it could be getting more water tanks on folks’ land and creating innovative cost-effective capture.”

When asked about the reception the association’s efforts are receiving from the local groundwater conservation district and other agencies, Sunderland stated, “Everybody is glad we’re paying attention to ourselves and our needs. It ends up costing a lot more if these things are neglected.” As similar housing communities continue to emerge throughout the Big Bend, perhaps Terlingua Ranch can serve as a laboratory for sustainable development. The key to success may ultimately involve questioning the wisdom of our current assumptions, which are largely based on living patterns in wetter climates.

According to Sunderland, “The most fortunate circumstance for us is the proximity of the Texas State University System’s Christmas Mountain Research Center. They too are focused on desert living systems and how best to meet the challenges of living appropriately in a region with limited resources. They bring much to the table and we are a willing and eager collaborator. With them, the agencies, and ourselves we can become a model of how to serve a community, serve our guests, and respect this magnificent desert.”

After a two-year hiatus, the association and TSU will be hosting the annual Christmas Mountains Research Symposium, May 23-25 at the Terlingua Ranch Headquarters. Anyone interested in attending can learn more at www.bio.txstate.edu/Department-Events/Research-Symposium

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. He can be reached at [email protected]