Bringing Back Comanche Springs: An Analysis of the History, Hydrogeology, Policy, and Economics
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Once the sixth largest spring in Texas (Sharp 2001), Comanche Springs produced its last trickles on March 19, 1961, before going dry for more than 25 years. These historic springs, having previously flowed for thousands of years, were a watering hole for mammoths, camels, and sloths during the last ice age and sustained a vibrant desert ecosystem through the 1950s. Humans have used the springs for at least 20,000 years, first serving as water stops for thirsty travelers, then hosting the namesake garrison for Fort Stockton, and then providing irrigation water for more than 100 downspring families, turning a brown valley green.
The springs have not flowed reliably since the 1950s when pump-fed irrigated agriculture expanded in the Leon-Belding area about eight miles west. Significant groundwater production in the EdwardsTrinity Aquifer in this area caused spring flows to decline precipitously in the 1950s and led to a seminal court case, Pecos County Water Control and Improvement District No. 1 v. Williams and others, which determined that, under the Rule of Capture, no liability could be assessed against groundwater irrigators, even if they caused springs to stop flowing and affected the surface-water rights of downspring irrigators. Soon after the court’s decision, farms along Comanche Creek were entirely extirpated, as were the populations of desert fish that once thrived in the springs.
In October 1986, Comanche Springs gurgled back to life, igniting memories of days gone by, inspiring a study on the hydrogeology of the area, and sparking an attempt to form a groundwater conservation district, later created and confirmed in 1999 and 2002, respectively. Since at least 2011, springflows have returned every winter season, drawing visitors and bringing a twinkle to the dwindling number of local eyes who remember when the springs flowed freely into its natural basin.
The consistent return of seasonal flow to Comanche Springs over the past decade begs the question: What would it take to bring flows back over the entire year? This is a question that requires a study of the history of the springs and pumping in the area, a review of what is known about the science of the aquifer, an assessment of the economics, and an appraisal of local groundwater policy. Although there have been a number of scientific studies of the aquifers in the area over the past 100 years, none have put the science in the context of the history of what happened, the policy that exists, or the economics of returning year-round flow to the springs. The purpose of this study was to conduct an historical, hydrogeologic, policy, and economic review to inform residents, regulators, and policymakers on what it would take for Fort Stockton to call itself Spring City once again. Although this project is focused on a small, but storied, part of West Texas, the general intersection of history, science, policy, and economics is relevant to the rest of Texas—or anywhere, really—where springs have been impacted by pumping and where discussions are focused on the sustainable development of groundwater.