The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District ended a nine-year saga Tuesday when its board of directors, before an overflow crowd of participants and attendees, granted Fort Stockton Holdings (Clayton Williams Farms) a permit to transfer groundwater out of Pecos County.
In effect, the permit hearing at Tuesday’s district board meeting continued the 2009 hearing wherein the MPGCD board denied an application FSH submitted in 2008. The application sought to change the use of its original historic and existing (H&E) irrigation groundwater production permit.
FSH had appealed the denial, and the case went to the El Paso Court of Appeals. This June that court returned (remanded) jurisdiction to MPGCD for further permitting proceedings consistent with a settlement agreement the district board approved in May. FSH and its groundwater marketing affiliate, Republic Water Company of Texas, had proposed the settlement in March.
Per the settlement agreement, the board amended FSH’s original H&E permit, reducing it by about 60 percent (28,400 acre-feet/year) in exchange for granting the new non-H&E production permit to product that same amount of water for municipal, industrial, or agriculture use inside or outside of Pecos County.
The new permit comes with 15 special conditions. Most of the conditions were permit limitations derived in settlement negotiations. However, two conditions resulted from more recent negotiations among attorneys and groundwater consultants for some of the parties to the Williams lawsuit. Those negotiations also resulted in a protocol of monitor wells, depth-to-water thresholds, and, if necessary, pumping cutbacks on the newly permitted wells.
The FSH permit protocol uses 1973 winter well levels as benchmarks.These were the lowest winter levels ever recorded in the Belding trough, due to heavy irrigation of cotton and other crops during that previous summer. Bill Hutchison, MPGCD consulting hydrogeologist, said that historic high rate of pumping created no water quantity or quality problems at the time and the monitoring protocol’s depth-to-water triggers probably would not be reached until about 2060 even with full production under FSH’s non-H&E permit. FSH hydrogeologists have said Belding-area wells recover about one foot of water column for every 1,000 acre-feet of reduced pumping.
Furthermore, the district and FSH will be planning a formal study of how pumping from the newly permitted wells affects the Belding trough portion of the Edwards-Trinity aquifer. The specialists hope to refine groundwater models they use to quantify aquifer inflows and outflows and to learn more about water quality aspects, such as transport of dissolved minerals, in that area.
The settlement agreement also involves changes to MPGCD rules involving its Management Zone 1, which encompasses the Leon-Belding agricultural area. The district board plans to hold a hearing on the collaboratively produced rule changes in its regular meeting on August 15.
Although the proposed new boundaries of Management Zone 1 would encompass property of 18 other permit holders, the FSH non-H&E permit’s trigger-and-cutback protocol would not apply to them.
However, MPGCD General Manger Ty Edwards suggested that any applicants seeking permits for new production (non-exempt) wells in that zone would likely be subject to those production limitations.
Hutchison has proposed conscribing Management Zone 1 to those wells that significantly affect the Comanche Springs complex, which he characterized as the natural (surface) outlet and primary hydrogeologic feature in the area.
After World War II, irrigation increases in the Leon-Belding area reduced flow in the series of desert spring pools, near the site of historic Fort Stockton and what is now downtown. Fort Stockton is still “Comanche” for many old-time Latinos in the region, some of whom also remember when cottonwood trees overarched the highway going north to the former agricultural area around Imperial.
In 1951, Clayton Williams, Sr. drilled more irrigation wells in the Leon-Belding area, and the spring flow dropped further. By 1961, the springs no longer ran year round.
In 1973, the year of the lowest winter groundwater levels in Leon-Belding wells, the price of diesel pump fuel skyrocketed with the OPEC oil embargo. In 1974, the U.S. government limited payments to producers of upland cotton. Some Leon-Belding farmers began selling out.
According to farm manager Jeff Williams, his father Clayton Williams, Jr., who had purchased some of the out-of-operation farms, began in the 1980s to explore supplying groundwater to cities such as Midland and Odessa. FSH now has a groundwater lease agreement with Republic Water Company contingent on the latter developing infrastructure, including a pipeline, and initiating service to out-of-county water customers.