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West Texas Water Board Approves Contentious Export Permit


A West Texas company received approval Wednesday to pump water from the Capitan aquifer and pipe it to the Permian Basin where it will be used in oil and gas operations.

The permit approved by the Culberson County Ground Water Conservation District allows Agua Grande to export up to 6,000 acre/feet of water per year, or roughly 1.9 billion gallons.

The unanimous vote came after packed testimony from concerned farmers, ranchers and environmentalists. The board deliberated for roughly 90 minutes before coming to their decision. Summer Webb, the general manager for the conservation board, says the move is the first time an export permit has been reviewed and approved in the district.

“Our board made it very clear that this was not an easy decision one way or another," said Webb, who also manages Brewster County's ground water conservation district. "The board never wants to waste, be wasteful, hurt a neighbor, but they also understand that there’s private property rights." 

Agua Grande – owned by oilman Dan Allen Hughes, Jr. – intends to pipe the water nearly 60 miles northwest to the Delaware Basin where it will be used in oil and gas operations. The Delaware Basin is part of the prolific Permian Basin, one of the country's most productive oil fields.

According to the company's application, there are approximately 20 oil and gas companies that have already expressed interest in buying the non-potable water. The list reflects some of the largest companies operating in the Permian Basin today, including Midland-based Concho Oil and Gas. The permit, filed in March , cites hydrology and engineering reports that claim operations will not affect nearby wells on other properties.

But that didn't appease area farmers, ranchers and environmentalists who attended hours-long hearings in June and August to voice their concern.

Clay Furlong, a rancher in Culberson County, says he’s concerned how the pumping could affect his land.  “Our water is everything," says Furlong, who was one of the nearly 20 people who voiced their concern. "We water half of the ranch out of a spring, there’s no water wells."

"I think it could easily be dried up. They’re not 10 miles from our Northern pasture.”

The company says their pumping won't have any affect on the nearby San Solomon Springs, which feeds Balmorhea State Park. But some experts say the aquifers in West Texas aren't fully understood yet and it's uncertain how activity in one might affect another. Many in the area are quick to bring up the case of the famed Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton which after 1947 were all but dry, after significant pumping from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer.

By 1961, the springs stopped flowing altogether.

Originally, the board planned to review the permit at an earlier hearing in June, but tabled the decision to receive more information and public testimony. At both hearings, questions of the district's legal bounds were brought up. The district and Apache Grande's counsel suggested the board couldn't legally deny the permit based on the potential affects the pumping would have outside the district. Legally, they said, the board's purview is confined to its district itself.

With the permit approved, the company says they will begin construction by the end of the year and begin pumping water in 2018.

The approved permit includes a provision to use monitor wells on the company's property to track aquifer levels.


Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.