Quarterbacking a comeback for a lost water resource in West Texas 

The story of Comanche Springs is known to every student of Texas water law. Once a 30 million gallon a day oasis on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, Comanche Springs supported nomadic Indian tribes, Spanish explorers and families of Mexican and European descent who put down stakes in the area because of the water.

In the early 1900s, the prodigious springs supported dozens of farms in Fort Stockton that grew pecans, alfalfa and luscious melons, known far and wide as Pecos Cantaloupes. In the center of town, an open-air pavilion was built in the 1930s around the two largest spring outlets, Big Chief and Government Springs. This natural swimming pool soon became the site of the annual Water Carnival that attracted thousands of tourists every summer.

But the region’s freshwater fame took a different turn in the 1950s when intensive groundwater pumping “upstream” from the springs dried up the surface water that downstream water users relied on. Thus began a legal contest pitting surface water users against groundwater users—a battle that ended with a monumental 1954 decision by the Texas Court of Civil Appeals. It ruled that, given the Rule of Capture, groundwater users faced no liability or restrictions in their pumping, whatever the impact to other water users who relied on the shared resource. When the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, groundwater pumping intensified. By 1961, Comanche Springs stopped flowing completely and were not seen for another 25 years.

Over the last decade, however, the once-quiet springs have begun flowing again in the late winter months when the aquifer rebounds from summer irrigation pumping – leading some people to ask, “What would it take to restore Comanche Springs?”

Working with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, we recently completed a two-year study on the feasibility of restoring Comanche Springs to perennial flows using voluntary markets. We’re now engaging with landowners and irrigators upstream of the springs to see if they could be incentivized to reduce their groundwater pumping to help restore year-round flows.

The reductions could be achieved in a variety of ways, including switching to less water-intensive crops and using more efficient irrigation practices. Another option is to offer financial assistance to landowners and urban water users to pump groundwater from a different aquifer formation with less connection to Comanche Springs, which is primarily tied to the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer.

Significant funds are available to support these potential transactions. We are now working with Quantified Ventures and the Fort Stockton Economic Development Corporation to structure up to $5 million in financing to restore the springs’ flows and build out walking trails and other eco-infrastructure for visitors and local residents attracted to Comanche Springs and its many miles of creeks and canals.

Texas Water Trade’s $2.6 million partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has given these efforts a critical boost. We continue to work with local stakeholders, including the City of Fort Stockton and the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, to attract key resources to restore this historical gem.

This project is bold, but the benefits will be far-reaching.

Reducing pumping to the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer using voluntary, market-based approaches would benefit all water users in the region. Our efforts protect private property by reducing demand on the aquifer, thereby enhancing the reliability of existing groundwater permits. For current water users, these demand reductions reduce the potential for declining crop yields, increased treatment costs or emergency investments in deeper wells. For export permit holders, our efforts to reduce demand mitigate the likelihood of mandatory curtailments triggered by lower well levels. Added together, all permit holders in the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer have a shared interest in reducing overall demand in the aquifer to ensure future reliability.

The economic benefits of a restored Comanche Springs would also be considerable – literally, worth millions of dollars a year. Consider the spring-fed pool 60 miles west of Fort Stockton at Balmorhea State Park. It attracts nearly 200,000 visitors who pour over $4 million annually into the local economy. Fort Stockton has plenty of hotels, restaurants and other visitor infrastructure to replicate this success and to attract the would-be visitors to Balmorhea who now face more constrained pool capacity in the face of spiraling demand.

Fort Stockton residents see a ripe opportunity to grow and diversify their economy by tapping into Texans’ love for these irreplaceable spring-fed swimming holes that cannot keep pace with the state’s population growth. As the state continues its rapid growth, we are proud to support Fort Stockton in restoring its most unique natural asset—proving that Texans can have economic growth and sustainable water resources at the same time.

To learn more about the science behind our project, visit our Comanche Springs Data Exploration page.