Billionaire oilman Clayton Williams Jr. is firing back at critics who claim his latest project — to pump trillions of gallons of water from the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer — will diminish the water supply in Pecos County and South Texas. And he's armed with the results of a $600,000 geological study that his allies say proves his case.
The city of Fort Stockton, the Pecos County seat, has voiced concerns about Williams’ permit application with the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District. The 30-year permit would allow Williams’ company, Fort Stockton Holdings, to pump more than 47,000 acre-feet of water from the aquifer annually and transport it elsewhere to sell for profit. (An acre-foot is 325,820 gallons.)
The controversy has traveled downstream to Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley, whose communities rely on the Rio Grande as their sole source of water. The Pecos River feeds into the international body of water, and environmentalists and elected officials allege Williams’ project would adversely affect their water supply.
Before the application was filed, Williams commissioned the Thornhill Group, a Round Rock-based consulting firm specializing in water and hydrology projects, to study the water availability below the Leon-Belding area of Pecos County, where the Williams family owns 18,000 acres. The results of that study, company president Michael Thornhill says, render the claims of Williams' opponents “absurd.”
Thornhill says understanding the past is key, as Pecos County has historically pumped more than it currently allows. “During the period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s ... [when] there may have been other landowners but in the Leon-Belding area, the pumping during that time was more than twice as much as it is today,” he says. “The old timers out there said water was flowing across the roads.”
According to the Thornhill report, well pumping reached a historic high during the 1960s: 335,000 acre-feet per year in Pecos County and 100,000 to 120,000 acre-feet per year in the Leon-Belding area. Recent estimates suggest that pumping has fallen to 75,000 acre-feet per year in Pecos County and about 60,000 acre-feet per year in Leon-Belding. With population projections expected to peak only slightly, Thornhill says, Pecos County and the city of Fort Stockton would not be affected.
But Fort Stockton City Manager Rafael Castillo points to studies on the city’s website, conducted by the Texas Water Development Board, that he says help legitimize the concerns of Williams' critics. He specifically cites a study by Bill Hutchison, the board’s director of ground water resources, detailing the water-storage capabilities in the board’s Groundwater Management Area 7, which includes Pecos County. Based on annual averages from 1930 to 2005, the area’s total inflow averages to 807,258 acre-feet annually — not enough to match the outflow of 879,303 acre-feet annually.
Thornhill counters that the amount Williams aims to pump is miniscule in the context of the massive size of the Groundwater Management Area 7 area, which covers more than 30 counties. “That’s like a teaspoon of water compared to what’s in there,” he says.
Castillo and the city said they would continue to ask for sufficient time to analyze their own data. The city is expected to pay about $300,000 to fund a study of its own, by Daniel B. Stephens & Associates Inc., that should be completed near the end of this year.
The current pumping amount
The gist of Williams' argument can be distilled to one single point: Fort Stockton Holdings is not asking for more water than it already has government permission to pump.
Williams and Fort Stockton Holdings can currently pump 47,418 acre-feet of water annually thanks to the “historic use” permit they hold. That means they can lawfully draw the same amount they wants to export in the future. The company wants a new permit because the existing permit only allows the water to be used for irrigation — its “historic use.” The new permit would allow for the transporting and sale of the water but would not increase the amount pumped from the aquifer, the company says.
In past years, Fort Stockton Holdings has pumped the maximum allowed, but that hasn’t been repeated in recent years, Thornhill says. And even when the limit was reached, the company contends, the water supply of surrounding communities suffered no ill effects.
Others contend that Williams’ pumping could harm the rivers that eventually drain into the Rio Grande. Jay Johnson-Castro, the executive director of the Rio Grande International Science Center, says that in past years, the Rio Grande has failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The river, one of the most endangered in North America, feeds not only Laredo but also its sister city in Mexico: Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.
“All we are doing is calling for a moratorium on any decisions until our two governments come together and produce adequate science to determine the impact of downriver communities,” Johnson-Castro says. “The Pecos is a major contributor to the Rio Grande.”
Today in Laredo, Mayor Raul Salinas will join Nuevo Laredo Mayor Ramón Garza Barrios in publicly stating their opposition to the project.
Paul Latham, the president of Fort Stockton Holdings, notes that the two cities "obtain their water directly from the Rio Grande via surface water intakes" in the river. "Pumping groundwater 32 miles away from the Pecos River — and 120 miles away from the Rio Grande — cannot affect these rivers to any significant degree,” he says
Yet Johnson-Castro also worries about the predicted growth in the Rio Grande Valley: At least one study suggests that the population of the border region could triple by 2060. "When you look at the growth versus available water,” he says, "[water] is not going to meet that growth.”