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A Tourist Town Reckons With An Energy Boom

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

This piece is Part 3 of our Untapped series about the new West Texas.

For generations, Texans have visited the desert oasis of San Solomon Springs for recreation, refreshment and rejuvenation. And for almost as long, the springs have powered the economy of the tiny town that sits next to them; Balmorhea. But now, an expanding industry is bringing big change to Balmorhea.

It seems like wherever you could put an RV in Balmorhea these days, there is one. There are RVs in empty fields, back yards, parking lots and next to Pat Brijalba’s snow cone stand, where three RVs sit close together. But he says there’s still room for one more.

Brijalba is the head of the local economic development corporation. The people who stay in the RVs – not just his, but all the RVs in Balmorhea – are there to work in the Alpine High. That’s the new oil and gas field in the Delaware Basin, the southwestern portion of the Permian Basin, where activity has ramped up big time in the last year. That hasmeant a shift and an expansion of Balmorhea’s economy, which Brijalba said has been a good thing.

“The only bad side would be if they were to contaminate our spring water. If that contaminates, that’ll kill this town,” Brijalba says.

And that’s this town’s worst case scenario. Brijalba is talking about chemicals from hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, contaminating the famous springs in Balmorhea State Park.

There weren’t any swimmers the day I went there, which happened to be in the off-season and on an unseasonably cold day. But at other times, the park is so popular that it has had to cap attendance at 1,300 people per day.

“It’s a very unique and very beautiful place,” says Carolyn Rose, the park’s superintendent.

With views of the Davis Mountains to the west, the pool that the springs creates is quite an attraction. And for a long time, it was the only reason to come to Balmorhea. But the geologic systems that create the springs are fragile, and some find reports of groundwater contamination near fracking operations elsewhere worrisome. There’s also a concern about how much water fracking demands, and drawing down the aquifer.

Castlen Kennedy is the vice president of public affairs for Apache, the oil and gas company that began the drilling boom near here. She understands why people feel that way.

“Well I think there’s very little risk but I also think it’s a reasonable concern as somebody who lives there in the community,” Kennedy says “somebody who has a family or who has children and who may not be familiar with the process.”

Part of that process, she says, is being judicious about drilling locations. Apache won’t drill under the park or Balmorhea itself, even though Kennedy admits the nearby drilling activity could grow for decades. So her company will have a lot to say about how it affects the local economy.

“Apache’s the primary leaseholder in this area so that makes this a little bit easier for Apache to manage and think about from a long-term perspective,” Kennedy says.

So far, the industry has boosted businesses that once relied exclusively on the springs. People like Lou Weinacht say it’s created opportunities that never existed before.

“This has been great for almost everybody out here who has a business,” Weinacht says. “Because you meet new people. You have something to do. You’re not sitting around twiddling your thumbs waiting for the next holiday to come around.”

Weinacht’s RV park used to have only 20 spaces, but recently expanded to 47. There’s still a waiting list, so now she’s building another park, closer to the springs. New businesses here are thriving, like a tow service and a sand and gravel vendor. The city is collecting more sales taxes, and restaurants and hotels are full. But all this activity has its own downsides.

“If you don’t have a business, you gotta to deal with it,” Weinacht says. “The traffic, the getting to work, getting back home…”

And then there are flares from nearby rigs, brightening skies that are among the darkest in North America, and 18-wheelers tearing up county roads. The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife is tracking water quality and the populations of animals in and around the springs. The idea is to collect baseline data on what healthy springs look like so they can sound the alarm on anything unusual, and to understand how the aquifer below feeds the springs.

“I will say that there is concern. We do really hope that the oil and gas companies, that they use the best practices in all of their work,” says park superintendent Rose.

Canals deliver water from the park through the middle of Balmorhea to a lake just outside of town, which farmers use to irrigate crops like cotton and alfalfa. The water flows right past the Cactus Motel, where I stayed while I was in town. Locals hope that all the oil and gas activity will bolster the tourism economy here, an economy that depends on an uncontaminated San Solomon Springs.

“If that doesn’t happen it will be a positive,” says Pat Brijalba, who rents RVs. “Because once the oil field leaves west we'll have the swimming pool and the tourists.”

…Provided that there’s still a clean pool to bring folks to town.

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