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Scientists Struggle To Gain Access To Land To Study The Region's Source Of Ground Water

By Mitch Borden

Concerns around water use in the Balmorhea area have increased in recent years as oil companies, like Houston-based Apache Corporation, have begun drilling near the area's small farming communities.

With the boost in activity, researchers have been trying to track and understand the water systems feeding the region’s natural springs. But for the most part, they've run into roadblocks when it comes to accessing private land to study the sources of the region's groundwater.

Dr. Lewis Land is with the National Cave and Karst Institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico. His team is studying the water in the region.

He recalled one rancher who told Land he didn’t think there was a good reason to help. The fear is that granting researchers access to their private land could be detrimental to the rancher's water use.

The Rancher told Land, "two or three years from now somebody from the federal government would come knocking on his door, and say ‘well, we found some endangered species of fish in one of your wells — and you can’t pump your water anymore,” Land explained.

But, the research Land is working on isn’t focused on what’s living in Balmorhea’s water. Instead, it’s aimed at tracking the path of the underground water systems feeding local springs.

Land said he explained this, but the rancher's decision was final.

Land said he has had some luck with property owners allowing him on to their land for his research, but the amount of suspicion and rejection he's received from locals, he said, was unexpected.

But J.D. Newsom, the executive director of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, isn't really surprised though.

“Access to land and [water] wells has been difficult for a long time and there’s mistrust of what they’re trying to accomplish.”

To Newsom, convincing ranchers to allow scientists on to their land has been a problem for a long time in West Texas.

Recently, Newsom and the conservation alliance held a community presentation in Saragosa, a small town near Balmorhea, where local residents and landowners could hear presentations by scientists about their research.

With more information about studies being conducted, hopefully, more people will cooperate with scientists. Newsom believes the more information landowners have, the better water can be managed.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.