End of the Bend?

Jetports and elite resorts may do what border bandits, blistering heat and harsh desert life couldn't: rob Big Bend of its rugged beauty.

"Where are they going to get all that water? Whose well is going to go dry when they pump out all the water Lajitas will need?" Warnock asks.

It's a question he knows more than a little about. His family's alfalfa farm near Fort Stockton was wiped out when rancher Clayton Williams pumped Comanche Springs dry. The city was once a true oasis in the desert but is now little more than a place for motorists to gas up, Warnock sighs.

It's happened in Terlingua Ranch, too. Ament Lake and several private wells were inadvertently pumped dry by road construction crews in the late 1980s. The area has never recovered, Alex points out.

Ivey, as part of his minimalist growth plans for Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.
Ivey, as part of his minimalist growth plans for Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.
Ivey, an owner of Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.
Allan C. Kimball
Ivey, an owner of Terlingua Ghost Town, wants to restore the hilltop Perry Mansion.

Developer Smith thinks he has the answers. He has gone upriver and purchased several farms and ranches just to get their water rights. Plus he's spent more than $1 million digging new wells.

"I own 23,000 acres, which we discovered sits on its own aquifer," Smith says. "We drilled several wells. Nobody else can drain from it. It can only be tapped by us, and the recharge rate is high enough to do several times what we're planning to do."

However, the amount of water getting into the park has been very low recently, and trips by rafting companies through the canyons have been adversely affected, Dowdy says.

"The lower canyons right now are almost impossible unless you want to hike pulling a boat behind you," he says. "Anything that takes water out above the canyons is going to be a problem. Even El Paso is looking to Big Bend for more water."

Meanwhile, New Mexico cities are using more and more Rio Grande water before it ever crosses into Texas. The burgeoning metroplex of El Paso/Juárez is using so much water that the Rio Grande is little more than a trickle from there south to Presidio.

Most of the water that flows in the river through Big Bend is actually coming from the Río Conchos, out of the mountains in Mexico. It flows into the Rio Grande at Presidio, but even that is lower than a couple of years ago, thanks to growing communities and three dams in Mexico.

Today, so little water flows to Brownsville that the Rio Grande didn't even reach the Gulf of Mexico for five months this year. It does so now only because the sandbar blocking the mouth of the river was dredged up in late July.

Simon, of the park conservation association, says the loss of water will kill off the right kind of visitors, ecotourists, for Big Bend.

"More water means we could sustain the rafting industry, and that's one that belongs in Big Bend, and it's been suffocating," he says. "Keeping more water in the river is better than building a new road."


Fears about the entire ecosystem figured into the park association's decision to designate Big Bend as one of the most endangered parks.

"We have deep concern for Big Bend," says Simon. "For centuries it was the back of beyond. It was about as far as you could get from modern industrial America and the seat of power in both countries, so it was protected by its distance. It always had a low population density and low resource use levels that never stressed the ecosystems to the breaking point."

But other national parks have lost their "splendid isolation"; Big Bend may be on the same road that Yosemite and the Grand Canyon ended up on, he says.

Development almost always affects the entire range of values that make parks special, Simon notes. Air and water quality, the silence, wilderness, biological diversity and migration corridors are all threatened.

Simon blames the Big Bend problems squarely on encroaching civilization and increased occupation and development. As an example, he fears that the Lajitas expansion will soon add another sight to this wilderness: cell phone relay towers.

"Cell phones not working in Big Bend reminds us of our place in the universe," he explains. "You can quickly erase the quality of a park experience the first time somebody whips out a cell phone on the South Rim Trail."

Smith says he doesn't want cell towers in Big Bend. Others wonder how long he'll listen to the complaints of frustrated millionaires -- cut off from their businesses -- before he puts up a tower.

Simon cautions he and the NPCA are not antidevelopment, but that projects going in near national parks should "meet high standards for sustainable design." Some of the threats extend far beyond the borders of Big Bend, however.

Once, the views here could stretch for 200 miles and more. With the increasing air pollution, those vistas have been reduced to as little as eight miles. Initial studies blame power plants in both Mexico and the United States, and some experts say part of the haze may be drifting in from as far away as Asia.

But whether the problem is air or water, the solution must be a binational one, Simon points out. "We are at a watershed point for Big Bend," he says. "If we don't take steps right now to nourish this region, we'll regret it."

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