Unchecked growth around Big Bend sparks debate over water — a prelude for Texas

Georganne Bradbury, left, and Rick Bradbury inspect their water well as they give a tour of their water system at their home on Terlingua Ranch in South Brewster County. The couple has garnered a reputation among locals for their services as the area’s trusted water haulers, often delivering between three and four 500-gallon truckloads of water a day during peak tourism season. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos and Eli Hartman, The Texas Tribune, Graphics by Carla Astudillo, The Texas Tribune

TERLINGUA A plume of dust trailed the pickup truck that drove through a maze of caliche roads. The driver and passenger were familiar with the route. Rick and Georganne Bradbury, husband and wife, have navigated it twice a month for four years to deliver hundreds of gallons of water to one of their favorite customers, an art gallery manager with three kids.

Coffee in hand, that customer, Shannon Montague, approached the water haulers from the entrance of her single-wide trailer home to greet them.

Rick pulled out a 40-foot hose, hooking one end to a gasoline-powered pump while Georganne dangled the other, a custom-made spout, inside Montague’s water tank. The engine sputtered to life, gushing water until it replenished the 750-gallon tank.

“What would we do without you?” Montague said.

Montague is one of the Bradburys’ many customers. The duo, both in their 70s, has garnered a reputation among locals as the area’s trusted water haulers. In this far-flung corner of West Texas, where municipal infrastructure and services do not exist, access to water for many hinges on Rick and Georganne’s ability to deliver it.

Day after day, the Bradburys deliver truckloads of nondrinkable water from their private well to customers across this vast region. Rick backs his truck into the back of a customer’s property, Georganne readies the hose. Once the customer’s tank is full, Georganne texts the next one — they’re on their way up and down mountains and across dirt trails that barely pass for roads.

For decades, the Terlingua community has survived by obeying the arid ways of the desert, conserving every trickle of water, and knowing its reserves won’t always be full.

In recent years, the area’s remote allure has attracted waves of tourism — and development. Short-term rentals shaped like bubbles, yurts, tipis and A-frames ornament what used to be vacant mountainsides.

And with that unchecked growth, the demand for water has dramatically increased. But no official map shows precisely where to find it or how much lies within the rock thousands of feet beneath the ground.

Residents, including Rick and Georganne, say the region’s wells are running dry. Meanwhile, developers and local officials promise there is plenty of water to sustain the desert town — and its visitors — for decades to come. The changing landscape in far West Texas, 110 miles south of Marfa, has raised questions about whether efforts to conserve the area’s precious resource will ensure its longevity.

And it offers a prelude to the rest of the state. As Texas’ population booms, the need for clean and reliable water is outpacing the supply. And the finite resource faces additional duress from an increase of hotter days and aging infrastructure. By 2070, demand is expected to outpace supply during severe drought, according to the state’s water plan.

Between the 1880s and the 1940s, Terlingua was a mining town rich with cinnabar deposits, a source of mercury. The population boomed to more than 1,000 people and production peaked in the 1920s. An estimated 40% of the quicksilver mined in the United States came from Terlingua, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

When the mines ran dry, the workers left.

Then Terlingua became a recluse’s paradise — and a playground for the ultra-rich. El Paso, 300 miles west — an almost five-hour drive — is the closest major city. Most homes are tucked away secretly in the folds of the mountains stretching into northern Mexico. If there were a neighborhood, it would be almost impossible to tell. At night, stars glimmer vividly against the pitch black of night, preserving its reputation as the country’s largest dark sky reserve along with the rest of Big Bend.

The first modern developments began in the 1960s when automotive designer Carroll Shelby amassed 200,000 acres of ranch land, where he and his friends famously shot their gun barrels empty and raced cars in the desert. By the end of the decade, the land was divided and sold door-to-door as vacation developments and hunting leases.

Shelby named it Terlingua Ranch.

Today, Terlingua Ranch is a fully-fledged enterprise. More than 5,000 people own some part of the desert. Most don’t live there, and the number of full-time residents changes frequently, said Hayley DeArman, property services manager for Terlingua Ranch. Alongside private property owners, the ranch offers short-term cabin rentals. There is a restaurant, the Bad Rabbit Cafe, a community pool, an RV park and a campground.

Governing the ranch is a nine-member board of directors. The board sets policies, including water limits, and dues. The ranch collects just under $3 million annually, which it uses to fund daily maintenance and staff salaries.

The ranch also provides water. Within the ranch’s boundary, five wells pump drinking and nondrinking water daily. Dues-paying property owners can purchase the water, but there are limitations. The association’s charter says property owners can purchase 1,000 gallons of nondrinking water monthly. Each gallon costs 10 cents — $50 if they take the full amount. The association also provides 25 gallons of free drinkable water every week. Anything above that is 25 cents per gallon.

The board is planning to reduce the amount of water it sells to owners.

“We’ve created a dependency,” said Larry Sunderland, the association’s water committee chair. Sunderland said that residents shouldn’t rely on the ranch wells because they weren’t drilled to sustain the ranch’s existing population.

Only one of the five ranch wells supplies drinking water and supports ranch operations. It was purchased from a property owner after another went dry in 2011. A second keeps the community pool filled. The third well provides nonpotable water the association sells. A fourth well feeds nondrinking water into the tourists’ cabins. A fifth well is completely dry.

“It’s a finite resource and infinite demand,” Sunderland said. “It’s not a great scenario.”

The board does not impose consumption limits for tourists who book the cabins, which are essential to the ranch’s business, Sunderland said.

The board has encouraged property owners whose homes are on the ranch premises to develop their own independent sources of water.

“The fact is that there are a lot more people here than there used to be,” Sunderland said. “There is just so much more demand on the system.”

But the alternatives in the desert are few.

One option is water catchment, a method dependent on rainfall. Drilling a well is another alternative — albeit an expensive one. Local drilling companies can charge $45 per foot, raising the cost of one well up to $30,000, depending on the depth. And there is no guarantee the well will produce water.

“You might as well have gone to Vegas and put it on red because you can spend upwards of $30,000 to go 600 feet or more and not hit water,” DeArman said.

Bill Ivey was one of the first to recognize Terlingua’s potential. In the 1980s, he and his father purchased a tract of land known as the Ghost Town. They went to work restoring many of the properties on the land. After his father’s death, he inherited all of it.

He now runs a restaurant and entertainment venue called the Starlight Theatre. Next to it, he opened the Terlingua Trading Post where he sells artisan jewelry, handmade nativity scenes and apparel. Locals and tourists sit on a long porch facing both businesses, which they have blessed as the heart of town. A few steps down the porch, Ivey rents out space to a gallery and a coffee shop.

“It’s gonna keep changing because it’s a cool place,” Ivey said.

Short-term rentals have tripled in a seven-year span, said Bram Gallagher, an economist with AirDNA, a data analytics firm tracking short-term rental data in the U.S. There were 133 short-term rental properties in 2018. In 2024, that number soared to 399.

The bookings have followed. In 2018, there were 71 bookings per night. In March 2024, there was an average of 225 bookings per night.

“It’s not a grotesque number, but the growth has been very swift and picked up after the pandemic, perhaps because of the renewed interest in the outdoors,” Gallagher said.

Booking prices have almost doubled since 2018. The average cost per night for a short-term rental was $130 in 2018. It is $250 today.

“That does seem to suggest to me that there is a sort of tourist element that we’re trying to attract with nice amenities,” Gallagher said.

While most tourists saw Terlingua as a quick escape, some saw it as a business opportunity created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ziad and Emily Almufti traveled to Terlingua in December 2020, seeking a getaway from the city. The Detroit natives drove a camper van, following a stargazing trail. Their road trip eventually led them to Big Bend National Park. What began as imagining off-grid living soon became a business plan.

“We loved Big Bend National Park and knew that it was getting discovered in a new way,” Emily, 28, said.

The two had business acumen. In Michigan, Emily worked in mortgage banking. Ziad, 33, was a real estate agent with experience flipping properties. They purchased 80 acres of land in Terlingua. Inspired by glamorous camping, or glamping, the couple invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the lot, transforming it into a modern campsite, complete with dome-shaped structures boasting expansive panoramic views.

They chose the lot for its distance from everywhere else, hoping to avoid artificial lighting. “The domes were just super appealing,” Emily said. “You know, we’ve never stayed in a round structure. And we just thought it was super cool.”

Emily and Ziad said they rely on local water haulers to sustain the restroom faucets, toilets and showers, requiring up to 6,000 gallons of water every month when bookings are high. The couple stores up to 9,000 gallons of water. They switched to bulk hauling every month to reduce the number of necessary deliveries to one a month, they said.

Emily and Ziad do not have strict limits on how much water their guests may consume. Rather, they educate their visitors on water usage. They also installed components that control the water flow and lessen the output. They’ve reduced water consumption by roughly 20% since the start of 2024, they said.

Other short-term rental owners follow similar practices.

Slava Chupryna owns Space Cowboys. His rentals — geodesic domes and safari tents — sit on a hill made of volcanic rock. At night, the path between domes pulses red from the sky-safe lighting he installed. The 32-year-old Ukrainian formerly owned a beverage company in San Francisco that sold locally sourced juices to corporate offices. He was forced to ditch the venture when the pandemic upended in-office culture. Unemployed, he started gallivanting through national parks until he came across Terlingua.

The town left its mark.

Chupryna returned and purchased 10 acres of land, transforming his portion of the desert into an intergalactic getaway. Statues of aliens dot the land like garden gnomes. A rocket ship serves as public art.

“We try, to a certain degree, to keep the thrilling, well, weird vibe,” he said.

Chupryna enlists the help of haulers who deliver water to him in a cadence that depends on the booking demand, which changes by season. Like most, he does not regulate usage for people staying on his property. Outside where the restrooms and showers are, he nails signs to the doors asking guests to limit their showers and flushing.

Chupryna said he acknowledges that tourism in Terlingua has increased. He said he tries to maintain a connection with the community. On weekends, he hangs out at Ivey’s Ghost Town, sitting inside a cramped shed with other locals. Known by locals as the Gas Shack, the shed contains a wooden table and an upright piano. When he’s not managing his rentals or communing at the shack, he lends his time to the county’s volunteer fire department.

“Terlingua is one of those places that is just getting really popular really fast and has experienced a lot of pretty brutal changes,” he said.

Not everyone shares the concern about the region’s source of water. Jeff Leach, an Austin native who permanently relocated to Terlingua a decade ago, has visited the region since he was a young adult. He’s hiked every trail in Big Bend National Park, he said.

Leach has earned a reputation in Terlingua as one of the area’s ambitious entrepreneurs, overseeing the businesses he has accumulated over the years, which many locals frequent.

Short-term rentals, a coffee shop, plots of vacant land and a vineyard are just some of his ventures. He rents out low-cost housing for his employees and other residents, a side business he said is not profitable.

Terlingua’s more pressing issue, Leach said, is housing and blight.

“People don’t want to see more development, so they go after the water company, saying, ‘Oh, you must be running out of water.’ We live in a desert. The second group of people don’t want more development because they’re in the rental business. They don’t want to see more rentals,” Leach said.

Many local officials agree with Leach — there is no water shortage. And so, they are turning their attention to development.

Brewster County Judge Greg Henington is one of them. Henington, the county’s highest-ranking elected official, said there is no water crisis in Terlingua but that the county needs to be “extremely careful and methodical with our water usage.”

“There’s no way we can say, ‘There’s unlimited water supply, everyone come and take whatever you want,’” he said.

Henington rose to county judge in 2022, his first term and political role. He’d spent his former years running a tourism company in Terlingua, Far-Flung Outdoor Center, offering river trips and tours from Jeeps and all-terrain vehicles.

“I don’t think we ever expected it to be this. It caught us all by surprise. But we’re not going to stick our heads in the sand,” Henington said.

One way local and state officials can measure water supply is by measuring aquifers, water that flows through rocks underneath the surface. Henington has no plans of asking private water well owners to do that. It would be an invasion of privacy and go against the rugged individualism and small government ethos of the Wild West.

Still, he said the county should start to consider how much water the area can continue to supply should growth — and the accompanying tourism — continue at the pace it has.

“How do you solve the problem of the tourist that wants to come out and take a long shower? How do you fix that?” Henington said. “I don’t ever want to get to a point where we have to tell people what to do.”

The Study Butte Water Supply Corporation is a nonprofit established in 1988 under the Texas Water Code to centralize water services in an area next to Terlingua called Study Butte. It serves about 200 customers within a defined geographic boundary. The corporation owns five wells.

The corporation said its concern isn’t water scarcity. Instead, it is beginning to focus on the ability to expand the infrastructure to support the growth. At the supply corporation’s annual meeting in January, the water board said it would use its million-dollar budget to put in place a plan to upgrade its infrastructure and hire a firm to study the water levels.

It has doubled the amount of water it supplies in the last decade, according to records provided to The Texas Tribune. In 2014, water managers piped water into 227 taps hooked up to its tanks, selling 8.4 million gallons of water. In 2023, the number of taps did not significantly increase, but the amount of water did, with 18 million gallons sold.

“I think we always need to prepare for anticipated growth,” said Bill Gilles, president of the corporation’s board. “And we’re doing that now.”

Terlingua’s has drawn the attention of water experts who are seeking a clearer idea of how much water is underneath the ground.

The Texas Water Development Board, the state agency charged with collecting information on Texas’ water supply, wants to closely study the Santa Elena limestone — one of the state’s unofficial aquifers — underneath Terlingua. The endeavor will require the collaboration of local officials and the Brewster County Groundwater Conservation District.

The agency and water district are a long way from formalizing a plan.

“I like to think of an aquifer as a bank account, where the money is stored, how much water is there, and how is it being used,” said Natalie Ballew, the water board’s groundwater division director.

Robert Mace, executive director at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, said aquifers help scientists and legislators locate usable water.

The state uses water monitoring technology to measure the fluctuation of the water and its quality. Ideally, scientists would place the monitors in wells that don’t pump out water frequently. Another way scientists monitor groundwater is by installing technology that stores information about the activity underground every hour.

Another way to measure groundwater already used across the state involves private water well owners who allow scientists to install recording equipment. In Terlingua, it would take years to create a general understanding of the water through this process.

Texas has mapped the water sources for major cities, but this is not the case in Terlingua. The last report studying the groundwater in south Brewster County was in 1990.

At the time, researchers described the rock making up the Santa Elena Limestone as “massive and hard,” estimating the layer of rock to be 1,000 feet thick. The water was salty, dense and laden with chemicals including chloride and fluoride, at the time exceeding safe drinking standards, researchers wrote. They also detected significant radioactivity. The report did not provide conclusions about the amount of water available to the area.

Since then, the agency has installed monitoring technology in two wells: one in Terlingua Ranch and another at the Study Butte Water Supply Corporation. These wells collect data from other water formations previously studied, but not the larger aquifer.

The water board said there is not enough data to form an accurate measurement for south Brewster County.

Mapping the Santa Elena limestone presents challenges, said Cody Bjornson, a hydrologist and water level supervisor at the water development board. The sedimentary rock is generally deeper and more complex in form than other neighboring rock formations, making it difficult and expensive to locate.

Bjornson said the area’s population plays a key role. The more wells there are, the more data they can collect.

“Maybe we will be getting more monitoring out these ways, especially with the population growth,” Bjornson said.

Bjornson and Ballew suggested that the state could help the water district access grants to offset some of the costs of acquiring data about the limestone.

Mace said the money to do this is already there. “We already have taxes that pay for that service. Why not take advantage of that service?”

Shannon Montague and her husband, Waylon Montague, uprooted their life in New Braunfels for Terlingua nine years ago to be closer to Waylon’s family.

The family moved into a 1970s mobile home. Waylon is a maintenance technician and student at Sul Ross University. Shannon is a gallerist and runs the Tin Barn Gallery & Forge, a two-story building made of reclaimed tin sourced in Marfa, two hours north of Terlingua exhibiting local artists. She also sells the art.

After work, Shannon drives home to the sound of wheels crunching over the caliche. At home, her kids play on the property, making the most of the remoteness surrounding them for miles. The only noise heard for hours is a breeze caressing the prickly pear cacti and the Yucca trees — plant species native to West Texas. It’s a peaceful routine, and the family enjoys the solitude.

The lifestyle asks for concessions.

The running water exclusively comes from the Bradburys because drilling is too expensive to consider. Montague has come to rely on Rick and Georganne’s water hauling business for her weekly supply, which supports the whole family. Sometimes, Montague said, she has to make difficult calls.

“Reality hits you pretty fast when you have to decide between doing dishes or laundry one day or bathing the whole family because you’re getting low on your tank,” Montague said. “It’s stressful. It’s absolutely stressful. You are counting your gallons.”

The family has grown accustomed to every aspect of their lives, however fragile: conserving water and relying on generators for electricity. She wouldn’t give it up for the world, she said, not even one where you can run hot water on a bathtub without thinking twice about how much of it you have left.

There is an irony that residents like the Montagues track every drop of water they use, while no one measures the water use for the region as a whole.

She trusts the Bradburys, who deliver water weekly to her home 21 miles north of them.

But the Bradburys aren’t sure how much longer they’ll deliver to Shannon and other customers. Water hauling isn’t lucrative, and they put back what they make into the business without cutting much of a profit.

Like many residents in the region, the Bradburys said they aren’t fond of the proposals introduced by the Water Development Board. Rick would rather the agency find other ways of measuring the bed of water that doesn’t include monitoring their personal water well, he said.

“I don’t care to let them monitor my well, I can monitor it myself,” he said. The couple does not trust the bureaucracy and said down the line, they wouldn’t be surprised if they started charging them for monitoring the well next, they said. The couple would be open to participating in the volunteer program.

The Water Development Board has said it would not charge residents.

Rick says some residents see them as contributing to water insecurities by selling water to customers who use it for their Airbnbs. But to Rick and Georganne, their business is the mark of a longtime Texas philosophy — that the water belongs to them and they do with it what they like. In their case, that’s hauling it to families like Shannon’s, in addition to the short-term rentals.

In Terlingua, where the culture of water conservation grapples with uncertainty regarding its supply, he said he’s willing to take the risk.

“I’m not making enough money to worry about it,” he said.

Disclosure: Sul Ross University and Texas State Historical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/06/06/texas-water-supply-big-bend-terlinuga/.

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