Clayton Williams denied water transport permit, for now
By STERRY BUTCHER
FORT STOCKTON – The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District last Friday said no to Clayton Williams and Fort Stockton Holdings.
Williams and Fort Stockton Holdings sought to export 41 million gallons of water per day from land Williams holds in Pecos County. Williams is already permitted to use that amount for agricultural purposes; the new permit would’ve allowed the transport of the water to a freshwater district in Midland that Williams established last year.
The Middle Pecos district’s decision to deny the transport permit was a unanimous 11-0 and came after two years of prolonged legal wrangling, detailed discussions, presentations, studies and procedural hearings.
Fort Stockton Holdings has 20 days to file for a rehearing. Depending on the outcome of that process, the group may then appeal to district court.
Chachi Hawkins sat through most of the recent rounds of hearings. The Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District was formally a party in the hearing process, as Brewster and Pecos counties share an aquifer. As chair of the district, Hawkins wanted to see first hand how the vote would go.
“We’re clearly very pleased that they denied the permit,” she said this week. “For those of us who share an aquifer, a transport like that can have a very direct impact on what the outcome of our water is. From a usage and recharge point of view, it could be devastating. The groundwater district is charged by the state to plan for the future use and sustainability of groundwater. We have a responsibility to make sure we were voicing our concerns about whatever will affect that.”
The question of the aquifer’s sustainability troubled board members of the Middle Pecos district, who indicated that Fort Stockton Holdings had not produced convincing evidence that the water resource could handle that level of pumping, along with the municipal and agricultural needs of Pecos County residents.
“We saw lots of disagreements about what would happen to the aquifer if the permit were allowed,” Middle Pecos chair Glenn Honaker said before the vote. “We haven’t shed a lot of light on what is going to happen.”
It’s hot and dry all over West Texas. The city of Midland is restricting lawn watering to two days a week beginning in July. The Texas Tribune reports that of the three reservoirs that supply the Permian Basin’s water, Spence Reservoir is 1.3 percent full, Ivie Reservoir is 26.6 percent full and is projected to be empty by the end of 2012, while Thomas Reservoir is 3.6 percent full and could be dry by this time next year.
Proponents of Fort Stockton Holdings say there’s a real need for water. Their studies and modeling show no ill effect on the resource.
“All the evidence points to the granting of the permit,” Fort Stockton Holdings attorney Ed McCarthy said.
Still, the sheer volume of water proposed for the transport was staggering.
“It’s not a bad idea to sell water to Midland, but that much water out of the desert is not the right thing to do,” Terry Bishop, a longtime member of the Presidio County Groundwater Conservation District, said this week.
Clayton Williams farms alfalfa with the water he’s permitted from the Middle Pecos district. Bishop knows something about alfalfa farming, too.
“I don’t know how he got historical usage for that amount of water,” he commented. “I’m growing alfalfa right now and I have for 30 years. I know how much alfalfa he would’ve had to grow to justify that usage – there’s no way. He shouldn’t have been given rights to that much water and it shouldn’t create harm to the rest of the people there.”
Williams has a reputation for being a savvy and tenacious businessman and the general belief is that an appeal is forthcoming. His company’s lawyer, Ed McCarthy, said after the hearing that the “permit application is still alive.”
“This is just a speed bump for Claytie,” predicted Chachi Hawkins. “There’s more to come on this; it’s not a closed issue.”
This is not the region’s first brush with serious water marketers. In 2003, a group of Permian Basin oilmen called Rio Nuevo proposed leasing state land in a half dozen Big Bend and West Texas counties in order to market the water below. The proposal was widely criticized – especially in the tri-counties – and a lease was never signed, but it put area residents and officials on alert. The decisions of the Middle Pecos district and the outcome of the Fort Stockton Holdings application could very likely ripple statewide.
“Whatever happens in this situation probably sets a precedent,” said Hawkins. “Water is going to be our biggest future. We’ve got to pay attention to anything that might be a detriment to our water.”
Bishop said he was impressed with the Middle Pecos district for taking a unanimous stand in the issue.
“At the very least,” he said, “nothing will happen immediately. Who’s to say that someone couldn’t try that here? And what would that do to us?”
(with information from the Midland Reporter-Telegram)