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Massive even by Texas standards, two
proposed reservoirs would inundate
over 100 square miles of prime
agricultural land in the cradle
of Texas history. The future of 700 old
ranches is at stake.

By Jeff Goodson

Ranch foreman Don Scronce and I had been bouncing around like greenhorn bronc riders in his pickup truck for the last six hours, most of it over terrain that can turn leaf springs into linguini. Saddles and tack were jammed in the back of the stretch cab, and the floor was a hopeless mess of fencing tools, topographic maps and Dr. Pepper cans.

I fished around under the seat for a cold one, while Don tried to raise a couple of his cowboys by cell phone. A voice, finally, came in clear over the line: “Think we got it.”

Don’s men had spent the better part of the day on horseback, trying to relocate an old graveyard that someone had found last year on a back corner of the ranch. We caught up with them a half hour later, jeans stuffed in their boots like vaqueros have for generations here in the south Texas brush country.

We climbed out to take a look at the site. A few broken headstones, mostly illegible, lay scattered in the cactus and high mesquite. The cemetery wasn’t especially old, the graves dating only to about the time of the Civil War. But it was another piece of ammunition we could use in the battle to save the 14,000-acre Barnhart Ranch, and about 700 neighboring spreads, from being turned into a giant watering hole for the city of San Antonio.

Come and Take It!

History runs deep in this part of Texas. Cabeza de Vaca passed through the area in 1535, and so did just about every explorer, freebooter and mercenary who followed him for the next 300 years. Some of the oldest ranches in America were founded here in the early 1800s and the first major cattle drive up what would become the Chisholm Trail started here in 1866.

People in this region have always been quick to fight and slow to cool. The opening cannon shot of the Texas revolution was fired just a few miles from the Barnhart Ranch under a flag with the words “Come and Take It!” sewn from a wedding dress. No one ever had much trouble raising recruits here, for either that war or the ones that followed.

The area was later home to a John Wesley Hardin, but much of the region’s character was branded into the local psyche by one of the deadliest feuds in America. The Sutton-Taylor feud burned here for decades, affected hundreds, and can still chill a conversation like sleet. Not even the famous Texas Ranger Captain L.H. McNelly, sent here on assignment in 1874, had much luck suppressing it. My own great-grandfather got caught up in the feud in the 1870s and finally left in search of a quieter place to raise horses and family–preferring to fight Comanches on the Texas frontier.

Whiskey’s for Drinkin’,
Water’s for Fightin’

But that was then. The current war started in the 1950s with a federal water redistribution plan called the Texas Basins Project. Designed to move water from surplus areas near Louisiana to deficit areas near Mexico, the project planned to build a canal across Texas, 21 reservoirs and 1,200 square miles of irrigation units.

Two of the proposed reservoirs, Sandies and Cuero, are twin sisters that would be located on the Guadalupe River and Sandies Creek. Massive even by Texas standards, together they would inundate over 100 square miles of prime agricultural land in the cradle of Texas history. The project design was completed in 1965, and reaction to it was immediate. Hundreds of ranchers formed the DeWitt-Gonzales River Association, and dug in for a long siege against the Bureau of Reclamation. The battle seemed won when the project died in the 1970s due to overambition, bad economics, changing agroindustrial circumstances and environmental vilification. But then came the Endangered Species Act....

Enter the Dragon

Upstream of Sandies and Cuero lies San Antonio, a city with cheaper drinking water than any in the southwestern U.S. That’s because it relies entirely on the Edwards aquifer, water so pure that it doesn’t even require treatment–although it’s chlorinated just to be on the safe side.

And there’s no shortage of water. Recent estimates are that the aquifer may contain 45 million acre-feet, enough to keep San Antonio supplied with some of nature’s purest almost indefinitely–except for a blind salamander, a few cave invertebrates, a tiny fish and some wild rice, which rely on two Edwards aquifer springs for survival at the headwaters of a tributary to the Guadalupe River.

Environmentalists have long coveted the Balcones canyonlands that overlie the Edwards aquifer. Indeed, the region is so important that The Nature Conservancy designated it as one of America’s “20 Last Great Places.” To throttle development in the canyonlands, environmentalists turned to the Endangered Species Act to control aquifer pumping. The tactic worked. In response to litigation by the Sierra Club, a federal court ruled that aquifer levels must be kept high enough to maintain flow in the two springs with endangered species, even in drought years. That ruling effectively rendered 45 million acre-feet of pure, cheap water as inaccessible as Pluto, and in the frantic search that ensued for alternatives a whole new rationale was established for Sandies and Cuero–as water supplies for San Antonio.


Big egos pitted against each other
in a final stare down,
big empires waiting in the wings
for greatness or oblivion,
and big money strewn across
the poker table like headstones
in the high mesquite.

The Texas Water Wars

Meanwhile, in 1997, Texas abandoned four decades of centralized water planning for a new bottom-up approach. The new process established 16 regional committees, and empowered them to develop consensus regional water plans for ultimate approval by the legislature. That process is ongoing.

The most contentious fight in Texas is over water for San Antonio, and a 21-county area that covers the lower Guadalupe, San Antonio and Nueces river basins. The players at the table are big boys–the CEOs of water authorities, river authorities, and municipal and groundwater management districts, who didn’t get to the top of their empires by taking prisoners. Not surprisingly, this particular committee is heavily stacked with San Antonio interests who are hell-bent on delivering water–a lot of water–to the city.

But to the DeWitt-Gonzales River Association, the new process looked like an opportunity to kill Sandies and Cuero for good. Just a little matter of educating the committee about the many problems with the two projects, and the many better water supply options available. It was this constructive engagement strategy that had brought us to the Barnhart Ranch, and to ground zero in the biggest water free-for-all in the state.

Strange Bedfellows

While endangered species had put Sandies and Cuero back on the map, two other rare species also entered the picture. First was the last wild migratory population of federally endangered whooping cranes, which occurs downstream of the reservoirs in the Guadalupe estuary. To protect their designated critical habitat, and the blue crabs they rely on for 80-90 percent of their diet, hydrological data show that so much water might have to be released from Sandies and Cuero that the water left for San Antonio might be too expensive to swallow.

More ominously, halfway between the endangered cave bugs upstream and the endangered cranes downstream at the mouth of the river, lives the Cagle’s map turtle–a species considered for federal listing since the early 1990s. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a notice of intent on the turtle in federal court. Some landowners thought this was a neat way to kill the reservoirs, until they were educated about the impact that the listing would also have on ranch management. Any residual sympathy for listing evaporated when an especially arrogant spokesman for the CBD was quoted as saying, “If we think the cattle are hurting the river, we’ll sue to remove the cows.” That had about the same effect as mention of the Sutton-Taylor feud.

The Next Spindletop

One silver lining in this little melee–something that could have a profound impact on rural Texas–is the debate it has engendered over groundwater and groundwater rights. Texas landowners enjoy a constitutional right to capture as much groundwater as they can, so long as it isn’t wasted and doesn’t hurt the neighbors. And they naturally chafe at anything that restricts that property right.

But ownership only occurs after water is pumped to the surface, and without a groundwater conservation district the biggest pump gets the most water. Because groundwater districts control pumping rates and provide long-term predictability, they make it a lot easier to market private groundwater rights. Put together a high quality aquifer, a groundwater conservation district, and a ready market like San Antonio, and you have all the ingredients for the hottest thing since Spindletop–the famous gusher that introduced Texas to oil in 1901.

Groundwater reservoirs, moreover, are superior to surface water reservoirs almost across the board. Not only is environmental, property and economic damage much lower, but so is the cost of water. Also, lease or purchase of groundwater rights increases the value of private land overlying the aquifer by the value of the marketable water rights established. That means a major economic shot in the arm to ranchers who have been eking out a living for generations, only to see their kids move to wage jobs in the city.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of commercializing their groundwater. But the financial benefits are clear, and landowners have been scrambling to establish districts that can market groundwater everywhere from San Antonio to Santa Fe. There’s even competition from the Texas panhandle, where the man who invented the hostile takeover–T. Boone Pickens himself–recently offered to pipeline 200,000 acre-feet a year to San Antonio for about $1,000 an acre-foot.

The End Game

There are still a lot of entrenched views in Texas about surface reservoirs, and the fight to kill Sandies and Cuero is at a critical stage. What was once a relatively deliberative planning process now looks more like a freewheeling game of Texas hold ’em. Big egos pitted against each other in a final stare down, big empires waiting in the wings for greatness or oblivion, and big money strewn across the poker table like headstones in the high mesquite.

But the argument for killing Sandies and Cuero is getting traction, and people from the Red River to the Rio Grande have come together to fight the projects. That’s because at the end of the day, the thinking around these parts is that if you can’t save 700 old ranches in the cradle of Texas history, then no property anywhere is safe.

Jeff Goodson is president of JW Goodson Associates, Inc., a Texas property consulting firm.


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