Marfa residents last week protested the City of Marfa’s sale of bulk water to a wildcat oil well drilling on Mitchell Flat, implementing an act of civil disobedience by parking vehicles near the city fire hydrants that were used to fill the tanker trucks.
The protest was spearheaded by Marfa residents Buck Johnston and Mary Etherington, who disseminated information on Facebook, recruiting other residents outraged with the use of the water for oil exploration during the current drought.
Residents reported the trucks whereabouts through the social media website; some claimed to have seen up to 20 trucks filling their tanks per day.
The trucking company, contracted by Presidio County Commissioner Lorenzo Hernandez’s trucking firm, began pumping water from the fire hydrant on the corner of US 90 and Russell Street – by Borunda’s Bar and Grill. When vehicles started parking at that location, they were forced to move to the fire hydrant located on North Dean Street/Fort Davis highway by the Presidio County Jail.
When trucks couldn’t fill up at that hydrant – because of more parked cars – they backed into the city yard across the street, first nosing onto the jail driveway and then onto city property, where a sign states “City Vehicles Only.”
Attempts to block either jail or city yard driveways could have resulted in a traffic fine or having the vehicle towed at the owner’s expense.
However, protesters’ vehicles appeared to have been in compliance with traffic laws, parking at least 15 feet from the hydrants.
The trucks were later allowed to fill at a hydrant located on East Dallas Street, where a section of the street near Alamito Creek was blocked by city officials.
City Administrator Jim Mustard said the city has the authority to close the street for water sales. “No permit was needed. It’s part of the normal operations of the city to close streets. We were going to do whatever it took to keep the water trucks filling up.”
Mustard, who is also the chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District, also stated that a conflict of interest could arise considering both positions, but that there was none such conflict apparent in this issue.
“The conservation district has no jurisdiction in this case,” he said.
The conservation district, Mayor Dan Dunlap added, has no say in the matter, not only due to the Midland Exemption, which allows municipalities to conduct water business without regulation from water districts, but because the water wasn’t exported out of county.
The exemption was on the chopping block for Presidio County in late 2012.
County officials and the City of Marfa were in full support of waiving the Midland Exemption, but the City of Presidio – citing growth – did not pass the measure.
Failing to pass the resolution was one of the final acts Hernandez concluded during his tenure as the mayor of Presidio.
Asked whether he had a conflict of interest, since he has a financial interest in water production, Hernandez said no. “I think you’re reaching, but I see your point,” he said.
Still, had the exemption passed, the conservation district could not have stopped the sale of the bulk water, as it was well below the cap of 200 million gallons of water that could be produced regulation-free per year that the City of Marfa requested.
Bulk water usage, Dunlap stated, is an ordinary function of the city.
“Once you sell bulk water, you can’t discriminate who you sell it to,” he explained. “What a lot of people don’t know is that our biggest use of bulk water is during wildfires. I understand that some people are upset that the water was used to wet down the dirt roads, with the water just being dumped out into the desert. The same happens during the fires: the water is loaded into tanks and dumped out into the desert.”
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The 750,000 gallons of water that was sold to drillers, he also said, was insignificant compared to other projects the city have taken on.
“One of the things we’re doing, with the current water project, is to be able to isolate the lines when they need to be cleaned or repaired,” he said. “At the moment, when we have maintenance to do, we have to clear all the lines, which is why you see all the water run down the streets.”
The sale of bulk water, Dunlap also said, has had no negative effect on the water supply.
“The water supply has not diminished since the 1950s,” the mayor said. “It remains stable and our demand in no way causes a strain. We are very fortunate to have a good water supply and we don’t take it for granted. The city of Marfa monitors and regulates our water supply. We take it very seriously.”
In addition, the city in recent years changed its residential water sales policy from offering discounts for more water used to charge more for more water use.
Dunlap and Johnston also met regarding the issue earlier this week.
“We had a great talk. It was very educational,” said Johnston. “It’s economics that drove the decision to sell the water. But still, it was 750,000 gallons of water and the oil well turned out to be dry. It was drinking water. It was wasteful.”
When asked if the conversation had changed her point of view regarding the issue, Johnston replied: “Yes and no. I wish we could conserve the water, but we do have to respect the city’s ability to make money off of it. We should revisit bulk sales and find out where to draw the line.”
The city, Johnston also said, handled the situation, including the protests, with the utmost respect for the citizen’s concerns.
“They said they were very happy that the citizens were active and concerned with city issues,” she said.