April 12, 2023 655 PM
MARFA — When news broke that local hotel operator El Cosmico plans to expand to a larger 61-acre site complete with 120 units, pool, bath house and restaurant north of city limits, it soon became clear that the question of water usage — whether a development of such size could result in the depletion of a vital resource — was at the forefront of local concerns.
Residents of Antelope Hills, the site of the relocated resort, cited water conservation as chief among their concerns about the project in interviews with The Big Bend Sentinel. As Marfa and its outskirts continue to grow to accommodate a booming tourism industry, locals worry groundwater levels, supplied by an aquifer experts still know little about, may be depleted.
“I wonder about the water situation, the aquifer. We have, I don’t know how many people are out here now, but probably close to 20, maybe a few more than that. Adding 120 units in one fell swoop, obviously, I think raises concerns about wastewater and the aquifer,” said part-time Antelope Hills resident George Hinckley.
Such concerns are not unfounded in an arid climate which relies solely on available groundwater. Last year marked Texas’ 11th driest year on record. Presidio County has been in a state of drought — ranging from bouts of “extreme” drought to “abnormally dry” conditions — over much of the past two to three years, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
In addition to area residents, The Big Bend Sentinel spoke to groundwater experts and the local groundwater district manager about how much is known about the county’s groundwater supply and whether or not a development like El Cosmico could impact water levels. While the hotel’s expansion is not an immediate cause for concern given the project scope and current water usage in the area, experts said, the limited amount of data available on the county’s primary aquifer and yet-to-be determined levels of human growth necessitate a certain amount of guesswork.
Water as a precious resource in the desert environment
Unlike the state’s urban areas, which are often built around lakes and rivers, remote areas like Marfa lack such resources and therefore rely heavily on groundwater. Statewide, groundwater accounted for 55% of the water used in 2020, according to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB). In Marfa, groundwater is pumped via wells from the Igneous Aquifer, classified by the state as a “minor,” or smaller, aquifer.
Groundwater in Texas is managed at the local level — in Marfa’s case, by the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District (PCUWCD), where a general manager and board receive and approve well-drilling permits, among other duties. The district can only deny a well-drilling permit if a proposed well is too close to an existing well — by and large well-drilling applications are approved, according to General Manager Trey Gerfers.
The groundwater district is responsible for setting Desired Future Conditions (DFCs) — benchmarks groundwater districts and management areas are required to adopt that identify the amount of groundwater needed to sustain local natural resources as well as the human population and economy.
Presidio County’s DFCs were developed by the five counties within Groundwater Management Area 4, which also includes Brewster, Jeff Davis as well as Culberson and Hudspeth counties before their inclusion in Presidio county’s 2020-2025 groundwater management plan, which states the Igneous Aquifer’s average drawdown should not exceed 14 feet within the next 50 years.
Robert Mace, a hydrogeologist and the executive director at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment out of Texas State University, authored a 2021 report on Texas’ groundwater sustainability in which he used groundwater availability models to compare estimates of current groundwater pumping to sustainable levels of groundwater pumping.
Mace said that in evaluating Presidio County’s DFCs, he found that current pumping levels from the aquifer were sustainable, but if as much development as the groundwater district anticipates occurs, the aquifer will be on an unsustainable trajectory as of 2070.
“For the Igneous Aquifer, what I found was that current pumping is just about equal to that estimate of sustainable pumping from the Igneous,” said Mace. “What’s projected for use from the desired future condition is about twice that sustainable level.”
“Kind of the long and short of it is that the current levels of pumping appear to be sustainable, but as more pumping comes online, the risk is that the aquifer begins to be produced in an unsustainable manner,” he continued.
To further complicate matters, there is no means of determining conclusively whether a district is meeting its DFCs. And counterintuitively, a groundwater district may adopt unsustainable desired future conditions, something current House Bill 4532 aims to amend.
“We don’t know enough to know if we’re even close to our DFC, and we need to keep an eye on it,” said PCUWCD Data Manager Kevin Urbanczyk, also a Sul Ross professor who serves on the board of directors for the Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District.
While groundwater is technically a renewable resource — able to recharge with rainwater — the level of recharge often does not keep up with rates of extraction, which, in the area, are permitted by the state to occur 100 times the rate of necessary recharge, according to Urbanczyk. Groundwater Availability Models from the TWDB, which Urbanczyk helped develop around 20 years ago, included thorough recharge models that showed just 1 to 2% of the total amount of precipitation flows into the Igneous Aquifer, and that recharge isn’t distributed uniformly.
That small percentage could decline even more, explained Urbanczyk, as a result of changes in precipitation intensity due to climate change.
“If you don’t have that nice slow-soaking rain, it’s going to run off to a lower portion of the aquifer. According to our model, there’s whole regions where there was zero recharge, because that’s in an area where instead of recharging, [rainwater] just gets distributed out into a dry arroyo and it’s going to evaporate,” said Urbanczyk.
Experts call for more data on the under-studied Igneous Aquifer
Experts’ ability to assess groundwater sustainability is complicated by a lack of consistent, thorough water level data as well as the sheer complexity of the area’s geology –– and subsequently its hydrogeology, or the movement of water underground.
“The science is a bit imperfect in fully understanding these aquifers,” said Mace. Some experts, he said, reasonably question the reliability of the groundwater availability models given a lack of data. Because the Igneous is considered a minor aquifer, said Mace, there is a lack of data and information on it.
Urbanczyk largely agreed — there is simply a lack of data on the Igneous Aquifer, he said, making it difficult to make informed decisions regarding new development.
“We need more data. We need monitor wells,” said Urbanczyk. “Without more of that kind of information I don’t know how we’re going to know [about the status of our aquifers] until our wells start going dry.”
The PCUWCD’s monitoring efforts are in early stages, meaning there’s a lack of historical data that can show changes to the aquifer over time. The City of Marfa has two public supply wells that have been measured consistently since the 1970s by the TWDB, but while one shows steady declines in water levels since around 2010, the other has remained stable, making it difficult for experts to draw any conclusions from the data.
And current working maps of our aquifers are not even fully developed, said Urbanczyk. Areas of South Brewster County, including Terlingua and parts of Big Bend National Park, for example, do not have an officially-delineated aquifer, meaning there is still groundwater being pumped from the Igneous as well as the West Texas Bolsons and Edwards Trinity aquifers, but there is no formal regulation or management of those resources.
As far as water level monitoring efforts go, Presidio County is ahead of Brewster County, said Urbanczyk. There are currently seven monitoring wells in Presidio County, three of which are in Marfa. But with preliminarily-approved grant funding from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the district soon plans to install 16 more monitor wells in the county.
He encouraged Presidio County’s citizens to vote in favor of the PCUWCD becoming a taxing entity in the upcoming May 6 General Election. If voters were to shoot down the proposal, the groundwater conservation district would cease to exist, meaning better monitoring efforts and other key regulatory practices could go by the wayside and jeopardize management of the area’s water supply.
Urbanczyk also advocated for more strategically-located monitoring wells. While metrics associated with groundwater management are aquifer-wide, locally-specific data is important in assessing the impacts of particular developments, he said, due to the fact that the hydrogeology is complex, and water isn’t “just uniformly distributed under ground.”
Potential El Cosmico impacts
How exactly water wells and wastewater systems will work on the site of the newly-proposed El Cosmico resort, a 61-acre expanse devoid of city resources, has yet to be determined. In a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, Lambert said her team was still in the exploration phase.
“We’re studying and surveying the land with a team of engineers who have a full scope,” said Lambert. “We are exploring all available options, including using existing and new wells onsite, septic systems and the possibility of a standalone wastewater treatment system. We will be meeting with Antelope Hills residents this week to understand their concerns.”
Though Lambert did not directly address questions from The Big Bend Sentinel regarding whether a city services extension was among the possibilities being considered, her March 9 letter to the editor announcing the plan indicated it was not; her team was working with an engineer to develop its own system for well water and septic, the letter states. City Manager Mandy Roane said El Cosmico had not been in touch about the extension of city services — an undertaking that would be extraordinarily expensive for the developer, she said.
Gerfers said he has spoken to Lambert and her team for a preliminary conversation about their options moving forward. He recommended that El Cosmico run tests to prove the well — or wells — on their new property can produce as much water as their operation will require. The groundwater district may also place probes in neighboring wells in order to measure impacts of the new El Cosmico resort.
“They’re going to want to know, too, if the aquifer is going down or their particular portion of the aquifer is going down, because you can’t invest millions and millions of dollars in an operation whose water supply is not stable,” said Gerfers.
The groundwater district has the options of asking El Cosmico to drill a monitoring well, or putting a condition into the hotel’s operating permit — which it will be required to obtain, in addition to any well-drilling permits, because it is a commercial enterprise — mandating that if neighboring wells are negatively impacted, El Cosmico will be required to curtail pumping.
Permits for drilling new wells are quickly and easily obtained and inexpensive — much like the cost of pumping water once a well is drilled. The county’s largest water user, Village Farms, a commercial tomato growing business, pays around $400 annually for their water, said Gerfers.
El Cosmico’s water would also be subject to a certain amount of state oversight — the projected number of users would require it to become a “public water supply,” per the Texas Center of Environmental Quality (TCEQ), meaning they will have to meet specific requirements for water treatment, storage and distribution.
“If you have more than a certain number of users, then TCEQ requires you to be a public water supply, in which case, they’ll get an operating permit, have a meter on that well and then report to the groundwater district every year how much water they’re using,” said Gerfers.
As for concerns that El Cosmico’s expansion could strain the local water supply, Gerfers said such a scenario was unlikely. The Igneous Aquifer has supported a larger local population and more ranching in the past, he noted.
That’s if conditions remain largely unchanged. The future thinking around the water supply may have to become more stringent, he said, if significant events occur to alter Marfa’s ecosystem — it didn’t rain for several years in a row, or if years with no rain became more frequent, for instance.
The practice known as “water ranching,” were it to occur in Presidio County, could also significantly alter the aquifer levels. The practice has reared its head locally in the past — El Paso Water, the city’s utility, purchased 25,000 acres in Valentine in the ‘90s with the intent to secure future water supplies for the City of El Paso, prompting local concern over water resources. Pumping never began at the site. But that concern, ultimately, is what led to the formation of the PCUWCD.
“I don’t think people should be super overly concerned about something like El Cosmico coming in and suddenly their wells are gonna go dry. I really don’t see that as a realistic scenario under current conditions,” said Gerfers. “If we have one of those big changes, we will need to re-examine.”
Mace largely agreed with Gerfer’s conclusions after assessing the scale of the project and reviewing available water level data but did note that new wells drilled by El Cosmico could lead to lower water levels for neighboring wells.
El Cosmico-adjacent landowners, if concerned, can reach out to the PCUWCD to request their wells be measured over time to assess potential water level impacts, said Mace.
“I don’t know that I see anything alarming, that is like, ‘Holy cow it’s gonna drop water levels down considerably,’ I don’t see anything like that,” said Mace. “I think it warrants watching, just [to] verify that if they drill wells out there that it’s not going to have much of an impact.”
Ultimately, Gerfers said, concerns over local water supplies — and infrastructure concerns more broadly — are not tethered exclusively to any single development, nor are they unique to the tri-county area. Texas’ population is expected to double by 2050, according to 2015 projections by the state demographer. (Just last year, the state’s population increased by 470,708 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it one of the fastest growing states in the country.)
Even in the remote Marfa subdivision of Antelope Hills, resident Lori Flores and her family, who have lived there for the last 17 years, have witnessed the area’s steady development over time. Flores said the previous owner of their property anticipated growth and decided to drill a deep well, which they still utilize.
“We were one of the first out there and there have been many, many changes,” said Flores. “It’s very different out there, the scenery has changed. We see houses all over the place now. We’re neutral to all of it.”
While they were impartial on the new El Cosmico, Flores said it would be important to monitor how more pumping in the area might affect neighboring well-owners.
Resident Kristal Cuevas said water conservation was among her concerns when it came to the El Cosmico development — her family is in the process of building a home in the subdivision, which they will move into from an Airstream. “It would not be great if we had to limit our water consumption for reasons other than just being conservative,” she said.
And potential impacts on her own family aside, water consumption needed to be assessed, she said. “It’s a concern of ours in terms of: it’s not unlimited,” she said. “That’s something we have to keep in mind.”
The matter of Presidio County’s water supply — and infrastructure concerns more broadly — are a topic of public discourse now due to the potential establishment of an expansive resort. But development within the county is bound to occur, said Gerfers, and discussions needed to continue.
“How do we get ready for growth? How do we get ready for the things that are coming at us?” said Gerfers. “You’re not trying to say no growth, you’re not trying to say no concerts, you’re just trying to be ready.”
“It’s not if,” he continued. “It’s when.”