The Science, Policy, and History of Bringing Back Comanche Springs

April 17, 2020 9:00 AM
Robert Mace

Robert E. Mace, PhD., P.G.
Interim Executive Director and Chief Water Policy Officer
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment

For thousands of years, Comanche Springs flowed in dry and dusty West Texas, providing habitat for endemic species and serving as a watering hole for passing wildlife and Native Americans. Since the springs were located on the Comanche War Trail to Mexico, the United State Army established Fort Stockton at the spring site to protect mail service and travelers from the Comanche and the Apache. Soon after, a small town formed with an irrigation company harnessing the springs to water more than 100 downspring farms. In 1951, just as the drought of the 1950s was gaining steam, landowners began drilling water wells seven miles west of Comanche Springs in the Belding area. As landowners drilled and pumped more and more water wells, springflow at Comanche Springs began to ebb and then failed. Downspring farmers left high and dry sued the upgradient farmers, ultimately losing when the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the case. As a result, the springs remained dry for decades before returning episodically during winter months when recharge was high and pumping was low. Over the past several years, the springs have returned stronger than before, resulting in the question: What would it take to bring the springs back year-round? Answering that question requires an investigation of the hydrogeology, the policy, and the history of what happened to define what could happen in the future. The end result is a hydrogeology that has forced the sustainable management of the aquifer, policy that needs to change to create a water market, economics that are viable but complicated by potential export, and a history that provides a warning to future uses of the aquifer.