Our Water Matters

Water in the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas

Sul Ross State University hosted the first ever Water in the Desert conference last week. With over 250 attendees, many illustrious sponsors and partners, and a who’s-who of experts and elected leaders on the program, the conference was one of the most ambitious gatherings dedicated to water issues ever undertaken in the region.

One of the overarching messages at the conference was the challenge posed by the “long-term drying that is happening in the region,” according to Dr. Robert Mace of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. The Big Bend region currently receives between 10 and 20 inches on average per year, depending on elevation, with “more rainfall at higher elevations,” according to Dr. Kevin Urbanczyk of the Rio Grande Research Center at SRSU.

As rainfall patterns continue to change and precipitation potentially decreases, it will be increasingly important to understand the amount of water that actually reaches the area’s aquifers. Recharge of the region’s aquifers is up to 5% of precipitation, but some aquifer recharge is as low as 1% of precipitation. “You have to have the right geology to accept that recharge,” according to Urbanczyk, and this is further complicated by the complex geology of the region which makes it difficult to predict recharge. In essence, we need a “change in mindset,” said Urbanczyk. We need to “shift to conservation as we see changes in precipitation.”

Several legislators at the conference also touched on the need for a change in mindset, especially when it comes to our complacency about water. Senator Charles Perry (R), chairman of the Texas Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs, stated that “everything starts and ends with water.” And yet, “as long as the taps are running, no one is interested” in solving the water challenges we face. “People procrastinate until they absolutely need” to act, he said. “There are some people who think they have more water than they could ever use. I think they’re wrong.”

Representative Tracy King (D), chairman of the Texas House Natural Resources Committee concurred, stating that we need to be aware that there is “a finite quantity” of water. In many parts of the state, groundwater pumping is “basically a mining operation” because that water is ancient and not being replaced by recharge. King said that his “hope and prayer is to show people” that this is an issue worth paying attention to “before you turn the tap and all you’re sucking is air.” People need to embrace conservation “before it is forced upon them,” he said.

One solution, according to Perry, is to establish a permanent funding source for water infrastructure, similar to the state’s “perpetual funding source for roads … so it’s not such a political battle” every legislative session. Water “is not a state issue,” Perry said. “It’s part of a national conversation.” We need a “commitment of vision and resources.”

A group of landowners at the conference agreed on this commitment of vision. According to Clay Miller of the CE Miller Ranch in Jeff Davis County, “Our job is to somehow secure the land and the water, which go hand in hand, for the sixth generation.” And this is best done if landowners “lead by example.” The challenge lies in finding the resources. “It’s just a constant struggle,” said Tammy Fisher of the Double T Ranch and Askew Fisher Ranch in Sutton County. Between rising prices, estate taxes, aging infrastructure and maintenance costs, many landowners are feeling the financial squeeze. Despite the challenges, though, the landowners agreed on their role as land stewards. Mo Morrow of the McIntyre and Morrow Ranch, who also serves as Brewster County commissioner, stated that “our responsibility is to the land” to be good stewards. “It was done for me. I need to do my part.” Miller agreed, stating, “We may be stewards of the land. But everyone in this room is a steward of the water.”

Stewardship was another major theme of the conference in a discussion led by Bonnie Warnock, dean of the College of Agriculture, Life, and Physical Sciences at SRSU, who asked her panelists, “How can we translate stewardship principles to urban landowners?” Catherine Eaves, mayor of Alpine, replied, “Education, education, education” of elected leaders so they can bring the message to the people. She also emphasized that “the greatest water use [in towns] comes from watering our lawns.” 

Warnock stressed the need to be aware of how different landscapes require different approaches and to avoid a “one and done” mindset. In the end, “We need to keep learning,” she said. Conservation, awareness and education are all vital themes that continue to surface in discussions about water and the future. With any luck, the Water in the Desert conference will become an annual event dedicated to tackling these issues.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He is also chairman of the Presidio County Water Infrastructure Steering Committee. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected].