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Pecos County groundwater managers reject local pecan farm’s petition for stricter pumping rules

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.

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Groundwater managers in Pecos County have denied a Fort Stockton pecan farm’s request for stricter pumping rules, arguing that the county’s existing rules are sufficient for protecting the long-term health of the local aquifer.

Belding Farms had sought the stricter rules under a new state law that allows for landowners to petition local groundwater districts for rule changes.

After initially considering the petition in February, board members of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District voted 8-0 on March 18 to deny the farm’s petition, the district said.

“We regret that the groundwater district passed up an opportunity to boost protection of the aquifers in its jurisdiction,” Ernie Cockrell, chairman of Cockrell Investment Partners - the farm’s parent company - said in a statement. “We fear that the district’s current rules leave the aquifer vulnerable to depletion over the long term, a risk that could grow as water is exported out of the county.”

The decision was the latest salvo in a broader, years-long dispute over the future of groundwater supplies in the Fort Stockton area involving the district and two prominent West Texas families.

Belding Farms, a 2,200-acre pecan orchard tied to the influential Cockrell family of Texas, has been immersed in legal battles challenging a plan to export water from the area to other West Texas cities — an effort tied to the family of the late oilman and onetime Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams.

The pecan farm has billed itself as a conservation-minded grower and has been involved in efforts to reduce the agriculture industry’s water use. In its recent petition to the groundwater district, Cockrell Investment Partners had asked officials to adopt a year-round water threshold level that would trigger pumping limits across the county if the aquifer’s water levels fell too low.

The district has maintained that its existing rules and extensive water well monitoring program are sufficient to protect the aquifer’s long-term health.

“After reviewing the whole thing and considering it fully, we didn’t feel like the petition was needed,” said Ty Edwards, the district’s general manager. “We’re very confident in our monitoring program.”

Edwards argues that the farm’s push for the stricter rules is part of its longer-term fight to block the water export plan, which has yet to materialize despite water managers approving a permit for the proposal years ago.

“At the end of the day, what they’re really saying is they don’t trust us to do our job,” he said.

Multiple lawsuits brought by Cockrell Investment Partners over the water export plan are still pending in the courts, with two cases now before the Supreme Court of Texas, court records show.

Still, the farm’s owners have maintained they are “not opposed to water exports as long as adequate rules are in place to protect the aquifer,” as the company wrote in a statement last week.

“In light of the district’s denial of our petition, Belding Farms will consider all of its administrative and legal options,” Ryan Reed, an attorney for the farm, said in a statement.

Edwards said nothing in the new state law prevents the farm from trying again with another push for stricter rules.

“There’s nothing keeping them from just constantly hammering us with a rule petition every month for the rest of our lives,” he said.

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