Culberson County landowner and land attorney Mark Brown public comment session during the hearing. Water Export Permit submitted by Dan Allen Hughes of Agua Grande was approved with CCGCD’s implementation of some local control of permit holders voluntary monitoring system on the Apache Ranch.
Photo by Lisa Morton
Unofficial motto of opposition at Groundwater Hearing last week
By Gilda Morales
About 60 concerned citizens and several television and radio stations crowded into the local Groundwater District Board meeting last Thursday, in what turned into an emotional, and at times heated discussion on the subject of water exports from Culberson County. At issue was an application submitted by Dan Allen Hughes, owner of the Apache Ranch, for a permit to export approximately 6,000 acre feet of water per year for fracking operations in the Orla area of the county, about 60 miles away. The source of the water to be exported is the Capitan Reef Aquifer.
Board President, Vance Cottrell opened the meeting by asking for public comment, but each of the almost one-third of those present were limited to only two minutes to plead their case. Not surprisingly, every speaker voiced his opposition to the exportation of water for use by the oil and gas industry, which could affect the environment and indirectly, the ranching and farming industries, as well as our aquifers for future generations. Some were concerned that the exportation would negatively impact San Solomon Springs, the source of water for Balmorhea State Park as well as other nearby sources of water.
Renee Hicks, representing the Groundwater Conservation Board advised that although the Board was sympathetic to those concerned about the impact on water sources outside Culberson County, the Board had no authority to regulate or control water exports outside the county. Hicks continued educating the crowd that the Board could only do what the Legislature allows it to do, which is primarily regulate. Hicks explained that the Board is powerless to prevent the exports and has only regulatory authority, the details which are ambiguous at this time.
Russ Johnson, attorney for Mr. Hughes, explained to the crowd that the area in question, which is thought to be about 400,000 acres, would be most affected by the export of water. Mr. Johnson used a study by Steve Finch, a hydrogeologist, whose research concluded that the impact of the water export would be minimal to the Wildhorse and Michigan Flat aquifers or even Balmorhea Springs.
Agua Grande, the company which will be doing the exports, will be charged $15 per acre foot, and Mr. Johnson stated that Mr. Hughes had volunteered to use multiple wells near the site of the exports, to be used as monitoring stations to ensure that other aquifers would not be affected. The stations would not have pumps and the agreement between Hughes and the Board would give the Board access to all data collected from the monitoring stations. Although the Board voted unanimously to approve the permit, it was made obvious by the legal representatives in attendance, that the Board had no choice but to approve the permit. Summer Webb, General Manager of the District stated, “The CCGCD Board and admin did not come to this decision lightly, all outcomes were considered and all public comments and legal and consultant advise was thoroughly reviewed and contemplated. I strongly believe the board followed the current law; however, for additional local control to be had and considered, change needs to occur at the legislative level.”
Editor’s note: a “no” vote would only serve to entangle the Board in costly legal proceedings which would ultimately not change the outcome. The Board’s hands are tied by a legislature which obviously puts owners’ property rights above the rights of a county to protect its most precious resource, its water.