Water in the Desert Conference springboards Rio Grande Research Center revival 

Sen. César Blanco and Sen. Charles Perry participate in a “Water Policy at the Texas Legislature” panel at last week’s Water in the Desert Conference at Sul Ross State University. Photo by Scott Del Vecchio.

ALPINE — Far West Texas was the center of the water world last week as legislators, landowners and researchers from across the state gathered for the first-ever Water in the Desert Conference held at Sul Ross State University.

Around 265 attendees gathered for the three-day conference organized by local entities including the Borderlands Research Institute (BRI), Dixon Water Foundation and Rio Grande Joint Venture as well as state-wide nonprofits Environmental Defense Fund, the Texas Water Foundation and more. 

The gathering focused primarily on Chihuahuan Desert hydrology and featured panels on groundwater management, water policy at the Texas Legislature and land stewardship. It also promoted Sul Ross University’s Rio Grande Research Center (RGRC), a 15-year-old water resources department that is currently undergoing an institutional revamp.

Alpine native Adeline Fox, a water communications professional now living in Central Texas who sat on the event’s planning committee, said one of the goals of the conference was to bring awareness to Far West Texas’ water issues and to make the RGRC more of a hub for research in the area. 

“This is the start of that conversation, to really amplify the work that’s being done there and then also increase the knowledge so that more students will come to Sul Ross and want to study water,” Fox said.

As it stands now, the center only has one employee — its director, professor Kevin Urbanczyk — and initial funds from Congress and the U.S.D.A. have long since dried up. This year, Urbanczyk intends to give the center a renewed focus, possibly a new name and stronger financial legs to stand on.

The first-ever Water in the Desert Conference, focusing on Chihuahuan Desert hydrology, was held at Sul Ross State University last week and attracted around 265 attendees from the state and beyond. Photo by Scott Del Vecchio.

Urbanczyk said the Water in the Desert Conference helped expose the RGRC to potential funders that may be interested in supporting research efforts in the region. “I’m hoping that with this momentum we can get the center moving,” Urbanczyk said. “We have to get funding coming our way — that’s really key.”  

An influx of funds will help support additional center staff as well as more research, education and outreach initiatives. Urbanczyk is still in the process of shaping the newly-revived center with university administrators. There is a possibility that the center could be expanded to include natural sciences other than water, like biology, chemistry, physics and paleontology. 

Urbanczyk said he wants the RGRC to have the “synergy” of a full-fledged, permanent center, with public newsletters, exciting research projects for undergraduate and graduate students and community services, similar to what the Borderlands Research Institute has achieved. “The BRI model, I mean, they’ve done such a good job with that,” said Urbanczyk. “And there’s room for another one, or so the administration thinks.” 

Projects he has kept afloat at the center include efforts to manage water level data for the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District and to monitor a springs system in the Lower Canyons of Big Bend National Park.

The Lower Canyons springs system — which can only be accessed via an eight-day canoe trip — is little known, said Urbanczyk, but provides vital to the flow into the Rio Grande River, pumping on average 250 cubic feet per second. 

That research at the center will continue, he said, and could also be accompanied by water quality testing and further investigations into the under-studied Igneous Aquifer, which stretches across most of the Big Bend region.

Chairman of the Board of the Dixon Water Foundation Robert Potts introduces leaders of regional water projects at last week’s Water in the Desert Conference at Sul Ross State University. Photo by Scott Del Vecchio.

The desire for more research locally comes at a time where Texas water issues — problematic disposal wells in the Permian Basin, aging infrastructure, drought, the decline of springs — are coming to the forefront. The most recent legislative session resulted in the creation of the Texas Water Caucus, a new group dedicated to water policy, as well as the Texas Water Fund, a $1 billion investment in water projects that passed with 77% of the public vote. 

Sen. Charles Perry, chair of the Senate Committee on Water, Agriculture and Rural Affairs; Rep. Tracy King, chair of the House Natural Resources Committee; and Sen. César Blanco sat on a panel about water policy at the Texas Legislature at last week’s water conference in Alpine. 

State leaders agreed the $1 billion investment was just a drop in the bucket and discussed the need for a more sustainable water infrastructure funding source, similar to continual funding TxDOT receives for road and bridge maintenance. “Water’s not sexy. It’s long term and it’s expensive,” said Perry. 

Legislators frankly discussed a potential reality in which water is less affordable and less available, one that could be remedied with the help of new technologies and conservation efforts. The treatment and re-use of produced water — a fossil fuel extraction byproduct — and need for more desalination plants were brought up as potential solutions. 

The management of local groundwater resources — the Chihuahuan Desert’s only water supply — was the topic of a panel involving Brewster, Presidio, Jeff Davis and Reeves county groundwater conservation districts (GCDs.) While the districts vary in regards to origin and funding model, all agreed there are regional data gaps regarding groundwater availability.

The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) has been monitoring water levels in the area since the 1970s, but its reach is limited — determined by landowners’ willingness to provide access to the wells on their properties. While some GCDs in the state have enough money to hire field technicians to monitor water levels, many in the tri-county area are running on small budgets ranging from $50,000 to $90,000, with few resources compared to their massive jurisdictions. 

Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District Chair Joan Johnson discusses local groundwater management with other districts and audience members. Photo by Scott Del Vecchio.

Urbanczyk, who serves on the Brewster County GCD, likened their district to a “leaky ship.” Commercial users in the county, which are by law required to obtain a permit from the GCD and report levels of water usage, are going unchecked. “There’s only five permitted commercial users of water, and there have to be 100 actual users of water that should be permitted,” Urbanczyk said. 

Aquifers underneath South Brewster County and Big Bend National Park, including the Santa Elena Aquifer, are not yet mapped by the TWDB, and little is known about the Marathon Aquifer. Urbanczyk said groundwater availability models developed by the TWDB of the Marathon Aquifer are only conceptual, due to the fact that the agency was unable to gain enough land access.

“That’s really one of the biggest problems for the Igneous too, we just don’t have enough information,” Urbanczyk said. “We don’t have enough monitoring occurring at strategic locations.” 

Fox said the need for more groundwater data and greater landowner cooperation was a big takeaway from the conference. She said there are often misconceptions from landowners that the water level data will be misused, when in reality it helps scientists understand more about a vital resource everyone relies on. 

“There needs to be — and the districts understand this — more collaboration with those private landowners to basically communicate the benefit of having this data without making it fearful, without making it scary,” said Fox. “We have your data for good, to use it to help us better understand the region.” 

Clay Miller, of CE Miller Ranch in Jeff Davis County, participated in a West Texas landowner panel in which he and others discussed the need for greater landowner involvement and commitment to conservation. “I think the challenge really, where water is concerned, is to try and get away from, ‘Well I’m not going to be around, what do I care?’” Miller said. “I think it’s important for us, as stewards of land and water, to think about the future.” 

A recap of the Water in the Desert Conference from “Our Water Matters” columnist Trey Gerfers can be found in the Opinion section of this week’s Big Bend Sentinel. 

For more information, visit bri.sulross.edu/events/water-in-the-desert-2024/