Our Water Matters

The Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District has been ramping up efforts to monitor groundwater levels for several years now. Through generous grants from the Dixon Water Foundation, the United States Geological Survey, the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART Applied Science Program, the Environmental Defense Fund and others, the district has been able to install water-level monitoring equipment in eight wells around the county (up from zero wells just a couple of years ago). It’s been an uphill climb. Staff turnover, the pandemic, and the challenge of finding willing landowners have made progress exceedingly difficult. But in recent months, these efforts have received a much-needed boost through the hiring of a new data specialist: Dr. Kevin Urbanczyk, professor of geology at Sul Ross State University.

Urbanczyk has taught at Sul Ross since 1991, where his research focuses on the hydrology and geology of Far West Texas. According to Urbanczyk, when he first started his teaching career, “My primary area of interest was the geochemistry of volcanic rocks. But I quickly realized that there were not any faculty at Sul Ross that were focused on water issues, so I decided to try to fill that gap.” In addition to his scientific expertise in maintaining groundwater and atmospheric monitoring instrumentation across the Big Bend region, Urbanczyk also understands policy-making through the experience he has gained as a member of the Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District Board of Directors since 2015.

Among the many exciting projects he has worked on, Urbanczyk stated that his favorite research location is “the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. To visit this remote area typically requires a week-long, canoe-supported trip. I take a lot of science gear and measure stream flow and water quality, conduct topographic surveys, and study/monitor the overall condition of a sequence of springs that flow into the Rio Grande.” He also recently “discovered” a sequence of aerial photos that were taken in 1947 along the Rio Grande in the Colorado Canyon area (in present-day Big Bend Ranch State Park) by the International Boundary and Water Commission, “presumably to consider construction of a dam in that area. I was able to process them into a single image in a GIS, and now I can use this to observe and demonstrate the changes that have occurred to the Rio Grande in the last 70 years. It serves as a time machine to see what the river was like.”

Urbanczyk is currently working to update and troubleshoot issues with the district’s database. This involves site visits to the various wells around the county with the district’s general manager and working with the district’s software consultants and monitoring-equipment vendors to ensure a smooth and continuous flow of data. Among the challenges confronting the district’s monitoring efforts, Urbanczyk stated: “Money is always an issue because groundwater monitoring can be expensive. But the biggest issue is the lack of access to monitor wells that are not being pumped AND are strategically distributed in key areas of the county.” Toward this end, the district will be tapping Urbanczyk’s expertise to locate new monitoring sites to be funded through the district’s affiliation with the USGS National Groundwater Monitoring Network and with funding from the Texas Water Development Board’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. These wells will mainly be located near the major population centers as well as in specific areas of interest around the county.

The district has also identified about 30 wells that have been monitored in the past by the Texas Water Development Board or the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and could be equipped with new monitoring systems. The historic data already available from these wells, along with the newly acquired data, could help the district generate a more complete picture of aquifer levels over time and potentially provide a better understanding of “the gradual impacts of climate change on groundwater recharge,” according to Urbanczyk.

In a region that relies virtually exclusively on groundwater, Urbanczyk believes “We need to know the status of our primary water source. We need to know if groundwater production … is causing significant reductions in water levels.” If so, “We would hopefully have time to develop strategies to assure a water supply for the future.”

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He also works 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]