In a West Texas town, there’s hope for eternal spring

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FORT STOCKTON — When I met Kelli Harrall Burns at the huge swimming pool in this small town, she was rehearsing a clog choir of 4 and 5 year olds who will be performing at the 86th annual water carnival in a few weeks.

I knew the dark-haired young woman grew up in this historic Trans-Pecos community, but little did I know that she was a former Miss Texas Teen, in addition to graduating from the University of Houston with a degree in law from Texas Tech and a cheerleader for the Houston Texans for three seasons (2011-2014). She and her husband Nick Burns, also a graduate of UH, have returned home — his house, that is — to raise their three children with family and friends.

Nick is originally from Birmingham, Alabama, and an Army veteran who toured Afghanistan. “He was kind of traumatized the first time he saw Fort Stockton,” Kelli told me with a laugh. “He said it looked like Afghanistan.”

There was a time when Afghanistan west of the Pecos was an oasis for a vast arid region. For millennia, seven prodigious springs have sprung from the beaten earth where the swimming pool is today. Comanche Springs, they were called. Cold artesian water geyser out of the ground at a rate of 65 million gallons one daythe water so nourishing with life that the small town on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert has dubbed itself the “spring town of Texas.”

Long before the arrival of settlers from West Texas, long before the current fort was established, Indian tribes surviving in the harsh land used the springs as a campsite and watering hole. Historians are fairly sure that Cabeza de Vaca, the Wandering Spaniard, camped next to the springs in 1528.

The Works Progress Administration built the Fort Stockton Pool and Bathhouse and two-story pavilion in 1938. The inaugural water carnival two years earlier was the Texas Centennial commemoration at Fort Stockton. Festivities included a mile-long parade, swimming and diving contests, golf tournament, dancing, comedy bath review, horse racing, monkey show, halfway carnival and – the culmination of the three-day event – the coronation of Miss Trans-Pecos. The winner in a field of 50 competitors was 22-year-old Sammie Lee Warnock. His title earned him a trip to Hollywood.

“When she was in Hollywood, Mom had lunch with Bing Crosby,” her son, Georgetown resident Sam Lee Pfiester, told me via email last week. “Cotton high enough for a girl from Fort Stockton. She wanted to raise a family, however, so the stars didn’t come to her eyes.

The San Angelo Standard-Times reported at the time that the event had been “so successful that citizens are talking of making it an annual affair in what travelers once called a wilderness, but is now a metropolitan center of West Texas with fashionable stores, great schools, pretty lawns, well-dressed women, electricity in every house, and the latest slang!

The water carnival has indeed become an annual event. Interrupted only during World War II, the third weekend in July was the high point of the year for Fort Stockton. And then there came a day when there was no more water to celebrate. In 1961, the springs stopped flowing.

The inhabitants knew what had happened; they had seen the flow gradually decrease for more than a dozen years. Farmers who owned land higher above the water table had drilled so many wells into the Edwards-Trinity Aquifer to irrigate their stupendously thirsty crops that they simply sucked the springs dry. Downstream landowners watched in dismay as apple and pear orchards, fields of cantaloupe and watermelon, and green waves of alfalfa turned to mesquite and prickly pear.

Kirby Warnock is a farmer, writer, editor and video producer from Fort Stockton. His grandfather, Roland Warnock, came from Mississippi in 1919 and purchased an alfalfa field east of town. Providing hay to farmers in the South West, the Warnock family made a good living, but when the springs dried up they lost their farm.

“They watched a lush field slowly wither and turn back into the desert,” Kirby told me over migas and refried beans one morning. “They weren’t the only ones. One hundred and fifty families saw an entire agricultural enterprise disappear.

Farmers who lost their land filed suit against several large water users, including defendant named Clayton Williams, Sr., who had drilled 52 wells on 12,000 acres of farmland. They sought an injunction to stop further drilling, but the Texas Civil Appeals Court ruled that a 1904 court case upholding the state’s “catch rule” meant a landowner could do what he wanted with the water under his land, whatever its effect on his neighbor. Groundwater movements are “so secret, occult and concealed”, the court found, that it would be futile to try to regulate them. (Texas remains the only state to grant landowners such unlimited freedom.)

The springs totally disappeared for 25 years; the party continued with running water. “We have two generations here who don’t know the springs are there,” Warnock says. “Only the old ones remember it.”

When the late Clayton Williams, Jr. was running for governor against Ann Richards in 1990, a Texas Monthly reporter asked him if the sources could come back if he stopped pumping 30 million gallons of water a day. “They might,” he said, “but I’m not going to.”

These days the springs boil at a reduced level in late winter when farmers take a break from irrigation and the aquifer rebounds. An Austin-based conservation group, Texas Water Trade, believes it is possible to restore flow year-round. To this end, the organization is raising money to finance a “voluntary water market” which would encourage farmers to switch to crops that require less water or to drill their wells in one of the other aquifers in the region.

“We have a realistic opportunity to restore flow year-round,” said Sharlene Leurig, CEO of Texas Water Trade. The flow she predicts would be about what it is when growers take their annual irrigation break, not the abundant flow of yesteryear. The group had some success with several major producers, but not all.

Among the top six or seven water users impacting Comanche Springs today is Jeff Williams, son of “Claytie” Jr. The younger Williams, whose company recently signed a $261 million deal to export water to Midland, San Angelo and Abilene, told Marfa Public Radio last fall it would not cooperate with Texas Water Trade. “We don’t believe their project achieves my father’s goal of making water available for its highest and best use – human consumption,” he said in a statement.

Fort Stockton is still something of an oasis. In the 490-mile stretch along I-10 between Kerrville and El Paso, this is one of the few places with multiple restaurants and motels.

This is not the kind of oasis Warnock has in mind. “I beat the drum on it for I don’t know when,” he told me as we stood beside a sturdy iron cage built on top of the largest spring, known under the name Chief. The cage keeps would-be cavers out of the narrow, now dry cavern opening where the water once bubbled. “The biggest thing the sources would give us would be a huge tourism boom. If we had water, we’d be like Balmorhea, just off I-10. It would be a huge economic boost.

I asked Leurig if she thought those kids dancing for Kelli Burns at the next festival would see springs flowing by the time they were teenagers. “I’m more hopeful than ever that this can happen,” she said. “Strangely, part of the reason I have this hope is the increasing scarcity of water. The imperative to conserve water makes it more pronounced than it has ever been before.

If the springs return, small children will not be the only ones dancing at the edge of the gushing waters. Kirby Warnock should join them. In fact, the whole town could dance.

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For more information on the 86th Annual Fort Stockton Water Carnival, July 14-16, go to https://m.facebook.com/fortstocktonwca/ or call Water Carnival President Cary Acosta at 432/940-0128.

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