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West Texas pecan farm pushes for stricter groundwater rules in Pecos County

A view of the local groundwater conservation district office in Pecos County in 2021.
Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A view of the local groundwater conservation district office in Pecos County in 2021.

A West Texas pecan farm is pushing local officials to adopt stricter rules on groundwater pumping out of concern for the long-term health of the local aquifer.

Belding Farms, which operates a 2,200-acre orchard in Fort Stockton, has launched various efforts in recent years to cut its water usage. The company, which bills itself as a conservation-minded grower, has also been mired in yearslong legal battles over the future of groundwater sources in this parched corner of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Cockrell Investment Partners, the farm’s parent company, is tied to the influential Cockrell family, and has filed multiple lawsuits in recent years aimed at blocking a plan from another high-profile Texas family to export water from the Fort Stockton area to other West Texas cities.

Fort Stockton Holdings, a landowning firm tied to the family of the late oilman and onetime Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, has for years positioned itself as a potential water supplier to cities like Midland and San Angelo.

Though the plan hasn’t tangibly moved forward beyond contracts with the cities - the long-discussed water export pipelines necessary for the plan have yet to materialize - the firm has continued to receive approvals from the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District. Cockrell is currently suing over the district’s latest permit renewal for the plan, while multiple other legal challenges from the company remain pending in various appeals courts.

With those fights looming in the background, the pecan farm this month launched a new effort that company representatives describe as similarly focused on protecting the area’s groundwater supply.

In early September, the farm owner filed a formal petition urging the groundwater district to consider stricter pumping rules.

Cockrell wants the district to adopt a “threshold” for water levels year round that would “trigger cutbacks in groundwater pumping if aquifer water levels fall too low at any time,” the company said in a statement.

A view of Belding Farms during harvest season in 2022.
Belding Farms/Cockrell Investment Partners
A view of Belding Farms during harvest season in 2022.

Belding Farms General Manager Zachary Swick said the company doesn’t have concerns about the current health of the farm’s groundwater supply from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer, but that the future could hold a different story.

“We’re concerned that the levels that have been talked about pumping have maybe never been pumped before,” he said. “We’re concerned what the long-term effects of that might be for the health of the aquifer going forward.”

The petition was made possible by a new state law that took effect Sep. 1. Under the law, the groundwater district has 90 days to either deny the petition or start a rulemaking process to consider the measures Cockrell is asking for.

An attorney for Cockrell said the company is in talks with the district about possibly extending the deadline for a response, though no decision has been reached.

Ty Edwards, the groundwater district’s general manager who was also sued by Cockrell earlier this year, said the district would consider the petition as required by law.

Still, Edwards dismissed the petition as being more about the water export plan than anything else.

“This is just a continuation of that fight at the end of the day,” he said. “We’re in the middle of the two landowners who want to use their private property.”

Edwards said while the farm’s concerns about the local aquifer’s future are “legitimate,” district officials are “doing what we’re supposed to.”

“The aquifer is protected,” he said. “We feel like it’s as safe as it could possibly be legally that we could do.”

Swick, the farm manager, said the company’s latest proposal amounts to “modest” rule changes.

“We’re not trying to take anybody’s water away from them, we’re not trying to stop anybody from doing anything,” he said. “We just want to make sure the safeguards that are put in effect are actually doing just that.”

The company’s petition stems largely from concerns about the accuracy of groundwater data that was used to design the district’s existing pumping rules, Swick said.

“We’re really worried that data could’ve been drastically over and underestimated,” he said. “If that’s the case, if we say, ‘just pump this much’ but it’s not actually there and it’s not sustainable, we’re worried about the long-term effects that could cause.”

Edwards said he’s confident in the district’s current water level monitoring.

“I think I’ve got about 30 full-time monitoring wells completely surrounding this whole area, including Belding [Farms],” he said. “We’ve got a great idea of the water levels, we understand what’s going on.”

A dry irrigation canal near Fort Stockton, Texas in 2021.
Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
A dry irrigation canal near Fort Stockton, Texas in 2021.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that water disputes continue to surface in Fort Stockton, a town once known as a lush desert oasis where annual “water carnivals” were held and the historic Comanche Springs supported a thriving farming community. The springs’ decline in the mid-20th century from heavy agricultural use culminated in legal battles involving the same Williams family now attempting to export water to cities in West Texas.

Cockrell’s push at the groundwater district comes amid broader, ongoing efforts to restore the town’s iconic springs to their former glory. Those efforts have been led in part by the non-profit group Texas Water Trade, which has partnered with Belding Farms on initiatives like an “aquifer resilience fund” and experiments in using more efficient sprinkler systems to grow pecans.

The group declined to comment on Cockrell’s petition to the groundwater district.

The farm’s owners and representatives have maintained that the petition and the ongoing legal challenges are not about blocking all water export plans, but rather about ensuring any use of local groundwater is sustainable.

“Belding Farms is not opposed to water exports as long as adequate rules are in place to protect the aquifer," Ernest H. Cockrell, chair of the farm’s parent company, said in a statement. “Aquifer sustainability is just as critical for the cities planning to import water as it is for the exporting area.”

Still, the simmering disputes have led to what Edwards described as “frustration” at the groundwater district.

“There are some legitimate concerns that we’re gonna be monitoring,” he said. “They’re trying to just find every avenue that they can to challenge that permit.”

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.