In Efforts To Restore Fort Stockton's Comanche Springs, Hope Springs Eternal
Kirby Warnock starts his car and heads down a dirt road just outside of Fort Stockton. The land is a maze of empty craters and creek beds, dust and dirt as far as the eye can see.
As he drives down the road, he passes an old refrigerator left on the side of the road.
“Golly, that’s irritating,” says Warnock, shaking his head. “That just happened.”
These days, the road is somewhat of a dumping ground, a forgotten stretch of dry farmland on the outskirts of the city.
Warnock sighs as the refrigerator fades in the rearview. “For anybody who’s under the age of 50 or 40, they can’t imagine Fort Stockton being an oasis in the desert,” he says.
But Fort Stockton was an oasis, a lush sea of green fed by the prolific Comanche Springs, which supported Native Indian populations like the Apache and Kiowa tribes. In the years that followed, the flowing waters attracted Spanish colonialists, Buffalo soldiers and families of Mexican and European descent. By the late 1900s, the water flowed through the city and into canals that ran for miles out of town.
The springs watered the fields of over 100 farmers — among them, Warnock’s grandfather.
Now in his late 60s, Warnock remembers visiting his grandfather every summer. But the irrigation gates that once flowed with water to feed his family’s fields are now under piles of mesquite. Today, Warnock says they’re barely recognizable. “I remember being a kid and you’d sit there and all of the sudden water would come gushing out of it,” he says. “The springs just flowed so much water, they diverted it out here.”
The springs flowed 30 million gallons of water a day at their height, all fed by the Edwards-Trinity aquifer that lies just below Fort Stockton.
“But when the springs dried up,” Warnock continues, “you just watched everything just slowly turn into this, into desert. You just watch what was once a fertile farm just slowly disappear.”
‘They own the land, they own the water’
The trouble started in the 1950s. Farmers west of town drilled deeper into the Edwards-trinity aquifer than ever before, causing a sharp dip in the water level of the springs, directly impacting the farmers on the east side of town.
“The 150 some odd farmers that lived off the spring water to irrigate their crops, they lost their farms because there was no water,” says Paul Weatherby, who served as the general manager of the local groundwater district, which monitors groundwater levels.
A Fort Stockton native, Weatherby grew up watching his father test the groundwater on their ranch, making sure his melon crop would come out sweet. For this reason, Weatherby has always been aware of water and its history in Fort Stockton.
Watching their fields turn to dust, those famers in the east sued. But ultimately the court sided with the farmers west of town and the lead defendant in the lawsuit Clayton Williams. The court’s decision upheld “ the Rule of Capture,” an archaic remnant of British Common Law which grants landowners the right to “capture” any water on their land, regardless of the effect it has on their neighbors. So the Williams camp kept pumping.
“They own the land, they own the water,” says Weatherby. “It was a tragic event, but at the same time, the rule of capture enabled them to use the water.”
By 1962, pumping brought the water table so low that all of Comanche Springs stopped flowing. For years, ‘The Spring City of Texas’ seemed a distant memory, but within the last decade, the springs have gurgled back to life.
Hope Springs Eternal
“The springs have come back for four months of every year when the irrigation pumps west of town go quiet for…the season,” explains Sharlene Leurig, who heads up the non-profit Texas Water Trade.
Leurig grew up hearing stories about Comanche Springs from her father, who spent some of his childhood in Fort Stockton during the 1940s -- for a time, Leurig’s grandfather ran the local paper, the Fort Stockton Pioneer. After learning the springs had long dried up, Leurig was inspired to take a deeper look at water management in Texas, eventually coming to work with Texas Water Trade.
The conservation group’s goal is to extend Comanche Springs’ four months of flow to year round spring flow — something not seen in nearly 60 years. To do this, the group is raising money to fund something they call a “voluntary water market," which would take money spent on tourism in Fort Stockton and use it to pay farmers to pump less water. This can take a few different forms: switching farmers to crops that use less water, helping them drill wells into other aquifers, or simply paying them to stop pumping on certain parts of their land.
“At the end of the day, it's just about realizing that there's value to the water that they leave in the ground. And we’d like to pay for that water they leave in the ground.”
But the proposal is facing some major hurdles. First, it’s a huge shift for farmers. They’re used to seeing water as necessary input into what they produce: in goes the water, out comes the crop.
“What we're asking is to think about adding an additional crop to the mix,” says Leurig. “But the crop is water and the output is springflow.”
Looking just 60 miles to the West, it seems like the returns could be plentiful. An hour drive from Fort Stockton, the spring-fed pool in Balmorhea State Park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors and brings in around $4 million of non-local spending a year to the tiny town of Balmorhea. Leurig and Texas Water Trade hope bringing back Comanche Springs could mean a tourism windfall for Fort Stockton. The economic returns could keep Texas Water Trade’s voluntary water market running long-term.
Paul Weatherby, the former groundwater manager, says the restoration project has support in town, but acknowledges the barriers ahead. “We don’t want a ghost town, we want it back like the way it was,” he says. “But as you well know, the bottom line is money.”
Are the economics there?
And money is another major hurdle facing Texas Water Trade. While the conservation group is trying to create a market to save water, there’s another water market on the rise in West Texas: water export. As cities in Texas face the reality of drought, they’ve joined the race to secure water, and they’re willing to pay top dollar just for the promise of it.
Leurig is well aware of the trend: “There’s no question that there’s been a tremendous uptick in the amount of groundwater that has been exported from one place to another throughout central Texas and now with this deal in West Texas,” she says.
The deal in question belongs to Jeff Williams — his grandfather was the lead defendant in that lawsuit back in the 50s. The Williams family still owns 65% of the water available for use in the groundwater district. The second largest owner: the city of Fort Stockton, which owns 12%.
Williams now runs the family business, and he’s inked a $261 million deal to export his water to Midland, Abilene and San Angelo.
Williams declined to be interviewed, but wrote to say he won’t be participating in Texas Water Trade’s conservation effort. “We do not believe that their project achieves my dad's goal to make the water available for its highest and best use — human consumption.”
And without his water, Williams says the restoration effort isn’t practical.
“If the largest groundwater permit holder in the region came to the table and acted in good faith for the community, this project would have a far better chance of success,” Leurig wrote in an email.
“I think this isn't an issue of can we do it technically, are the economics there?” says Leurig. “This is a question of, can we actually inspire people to come together and create a legacy that transcends anything that they've inherited?”
‘We need the water and don’t want to waste it’
And it’s evident that Fort Stockton cherishes the legacy of water in their city. Even though Comanche Springs doesn’t flow year-round, the city continues to celebrate its history. Every summer since 1936, the city gathers for the annual Water Carnival, a three-day extravaganza of reunions, parades, beauty pageants and community theater.
On the final night of this year’s carnival, synchronized swimming is the main event.
“Well I don’t know if you can call it synchronized, but they are together,” says Vicki Mitchell, laughing. A Fort Stockton native, tonight is her 28th Water Carnival Mitchell has helped plan.
Mitchell sits among a slew of elaborate Las Vegas-themed props: wooden recreations of Circus Circus, the Bellagio, Vegas’ Eiffel tower and The Strat — all for an original play themed “How Not to Propose in Vegas.”
Mitchell, and her entire family, are on the planning committee for the event. In a close-knit town like Fort Stockton, the Water Carnival is a big deal. It takes months to plan, and everyone who pitches in is a volunteer.
When the springs dried up, Mitchell says there were a few years where the Carnival didn’t happen. But it was so important, the city built a chlorinated pool in the dry spring bed, constructed so that the carnival could continue. “We all believe very, very strongly in carrying the traditional Water Carnival on, even when we're all gone,” says Mitchell
Just beyond the gates of the pool, Arna McCorckle drives by. She’s a rancher and works for the chamber of commerce, but tonight she’s a chauffeur, shuttling carnival-goers to their cars via golf-cart.
As she drives down the street, she expresses a skepticism for the spring restoration: “It will be cool if they get the springs running again,” says McCorkle. “But I know we need the water and we don’t want to waste it. We need the water to go to something productive and not just to be flowing.”
As Sharlene Leurig sees it, this perception of water is the main challenge her group is facing — even over money. The restoration project is not just an economic shift, it’s a cultural shift.
“There's such a reflexive way of water now after so many decades and generations of....'if I'm going to have my water then you can't have yours,'” she says. “We can't treat this as a zero-sum game."
For now, Fort Stockton is somewhat of a shrine to the absent springs: the structures built around them are everywhere. Empty canals coursing through town, rusted irrigation gates and bridges stretching over nothing.
On the surface, not much about Fort Stockton has changed since the Spring City days — all that’s missing is the water.