If you had driven through Fort Stockton in the 1940s or ridden with the Conquistadors claiming lands for the Spanish King in the 1600s, something would have stuck out to you: water.
Comanche Springs flowed cold and steady for thousands of years. We know the springs never stopped flowing during all that time because—until the middle part of last century—the springs supported a genetically distinct species of fish known as Comanche Springs pupfish.
The springs are the reason why Fort Stockton was settled—first by Indian tribes, then by Spanish colonialists, then Buffalo Soldiers at the conclusion of the Civil War, and most recently by families of Mexican and European descent who came to farm with its prodigious waters, some 30 million gallons a day.
Indeed, the springs were a destination for visitors from across West Texas until they stopped flowing in the 1950s. Fort Stockton’s annual Water Carnival drew thousands of spectators for its high-diving feats, beauty pageant and synchronized swimming.
Comanche Springs’ demise is well known to any student of Texas water law. Farmers who had irrigated with the water of the springs sued farmers who were pumping groundwater west of town. Ultimately, the courts ruled in favor of the groundwater users. It upheld what is known as the Rule of Capture—in the absence of local groundwater regulations, groundwater producers cannot be held liable if through legal use they deplete their neighbors’ water resources.
Following that court case, farms downstream of Comanche Springs returned to desert. In the 1950s, recognizing that the springs were not coming back, Pecos County constructed a swimming pool at the old stone Comanche Springs bath house. Farms west of town flourished, peaking in production in the 1970s. In 2002, the formation of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District was approved by Pecos County voters. The district assigned groundwater rights to pumpers who could prove historic usage.
That seemed to be the final chapter in the history of Comanche Springs. But then a strange thing happened: over the past decade, from November to March, the once-silent Comanche Springs began flowing again. During a visit last winter, we heard the violent gurgling of the springs and saw eight-inch crawfish swimming in the old irrigation canal.
Which prompted us to wonder: could Comanche Springs flow year-round once more?
Restoring these springs would be a boon to the culture of the modern Permian Basin and an economic shot in the arm for Fort Stockton and Pecos County. Another beloved spring, Balmorhea, receives more than 200,000 visitors a year. Most of those visitors stop by for a dip in a desert oasis and then continue on their way. Yet unlike the small town of Balmorhea, Fort Stockton has hotels and commercial infrastructure to attract visitors and keep them. With perennial flows at a restored Comanche Springs, Fort Stockton could be the gateway to Big Bend National Park, which had 440,000 visitors in 2018.
We believe this vision is achievable and is supported by the best available science. Over the last year, our two organizations have been collaborating on a feasibility assessment of restoring Comanche Springs. With the generous support of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Fort Stockton, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, we have evaluated the potential to voluntarily reduce groundwater pumping from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer to levels that would enable Comanche Springs to flow again year-round.
We are not proposing that Comanche Springs be restored to its historic flows; we recognize that farming west of Fort Stockton is an important part of the local economy and that farmers will continue to use water from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer. But between improvements in agricultural water efficiency, shifting some demand to other available groundwater resources and payments to groundwater owners to lower their pumping, we believe that both Pecos County’s farms and its springs can flourish.
This is possible because Pecos County is rich in water resources—there are at least four prolific aquifers in the Fort Stockton area, three of them underlying the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer. By recalibrating which water supplies are used to satisfy water demands, Pecos County residents can have their water and swim in it, too.
Over the next year, we will be collaborating with agricultural water users west of Fort Stockton to recruit them into a pilot market that will seek to test our hypothesis that through voluntary reductions in pumping—for which we will compensate pumpers—we can coax Comanche Springs back to life. We will continue to work with the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, the Pecos County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1, Pecos County and Fort Stockton to align this work with their vision of a better future. And we invite others who share in our belief that the impossible can be achieved at Comanche Springs.
Sharlene Leurig is Chief Executive Officer of Texas Water Trade, a nonprofit committed to using water markets and technological innovation to create a future of clean, flowing water for all Texans.
Robert E. Mace, Ph.D., P.G., is Executive Director of The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.