City of Presidio discusses contract in hopes of protecting water supply from future development

PRESIDIO — At Tuesday night’s meeting, Presidio City Council discussed potentially pursuing a permit from Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District (PCUWCD) that would allow the city to use a certain amount of groundwater per year in exchange for a measure of protection against future development. Presidio City Council has cyclically considered the measure over the past few years, weighing the potential red tape with the protection the contract could provide. 

PCUWCD General Manager Trey Gerfers attended the meeting to give council members the rundown on the pros and cons — the latter of which he insisted were very minor. He explained that the cities of Marfa and Presidio were granted something referred to as the “Midland exemption” from the PCUWCD, which allows smaller municipalities across the state to pump and use groundwater with virtually no regulation. 

Gerfers explained that the downside of the “Midland exemption” was that smaller cities and towns were left vulnerable to unchecked development. He asked the council members to consider a few hypotheticals: what if a bottled water company wanted to pump and sell local groundwater? What if a business hoping to cash in on Presidio’s proximity to the border collected water to export? 

Though the PCUWCD does have the final say on issuing permits to municipalities and private corporations, Gerfers explained that the board had basically no veto power. As long as the entity can prove that the water source they want to tap can produce the amount of water they plan to use, there’s little room to protest — for example, based on opposition to the oil and gas industry or concern about commercial farming. “The district can’t pick and choose,” he said. 

The potential contract offered to the City of Presidio would require that the city set an annual limit for the amount of water they planned to use — a number they could prove that could be sustainably supplied by the underground water supply. The permit would have to be renewed each year, allowing the city to easily revise the amount of water based on demand. 

Once the city sets its annual allotment, any outside entities would have to prove that the water source could sustain both their operations and the City of Presidio’s — with no interruption to the city’s supply. “It’s envisioned as an insurance policy,” Gerfers said. 

Without these protections in place, entities owning land near the city’s wells could tap into the same water source and crowd out local utilities customers. Should the city not pursue the protective contract and permit with the PCUWCD, the city would have to pursue legal means to get the newcomers to back off. “[The contract] gives you something you can stand on,” he explained. 

Gerfer said that the steps to applying for the permit are relatively straightforward. First, city officials and experts would put their heads together to come up with a reasonable number for annual use. Next, the city would pay a $100 permitting fee and a public hearing would be held before the PCUWCD board in case members of the public had any concerns. 

Mayor John Ferguson said that the council had considered the measure in years past, but decided not to pursue the contract based on the fear of regulation. Gerfers said that the City of Marfa was already on board and was just waiting for Presidio — as the county’s largest population center — to act in solidarity. 

Gerfers hoped there wouldn’t be as much opposition this time around. “This is not about controlling the city or the amount of water you’re using,” he said. 

Though City Administrator Pablo Rodriguez will not have a vote on the eventual measure, he voiced support for the project. “If we have these practices in place, our children and grandchildren will thank us,” he said. 

Councilmember John Razo agreed. “Sometimes you take things for granted,” he said. “But we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re reacting to a water shortage.”