This article was originally published October 2016.
A lot of Texans know about Barton Springs, the natural pool in the heart of Austin. But did you know there’s a desert oasis in West Texas that may be the best swimming hole in the whole state? Balmorhea Pool is a true Texas treasure.
Unfortunately, the naturally-fed gem faces a serious threat from another Texas staple: oil.
The San Solomon Springs in Balmorhea State Park have serious history. According to Texas Monthly, natives lived near the springs for thousands of years. But during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps brought new public life to the area.
The New Deal workers built a 1.75-acre pool on top of the springs. The constant flow of fresh water (more than 15 million gallons a day) ensured pristine swimming conditions. And the temperature rarely dips south of 72 degrees. Take that, frigid 68-degree waters of Barton Springs.
The beautiful green of the park stands in stark contrast to the rugged landscape of West Texas desert. The park sits just under 60 miles West of Fort Stockton — an area that, until recently, didn’t see much in the way of tourism.
But thanks to a booming interest in the West Texas landscape, a record 135,000 people visited the pool last year. The pool even offers the opportunity to scuba dive, thanks to its 25-foot depths at parts. Imagine, scuba diving in the middle of the desert!
Though the pool draws a remarkably high number of tourists every year, park officials do a pretty amazing job at maintaining the area’s delicate ecosystem. The springs are also part of a restored desert wetland, which is home to several endangered species. The pool sees frequent visitors from natural guests, including fish, salamanders, snails, crawdads and snakes.
Because the springs keep water flowing daily, park officials don’t have to treat the water or worry about infections. By contrast, visitors to Barton Springs need to routinely pay attention to bacteria counts. A strand of E. coli has shut down the park intermittently since the 1980s.
Part of the allure of the entire park is the opportunity to camp the area for a more immersive experience. Or, if you want, stay in the retro motel also built by the CCC.
However, uncertain times approach for Balmorhea. Last month, Houston-based Apache says it discovered more than 3 billion barrels of oil in the area dubbed “Alpine High,” thanks to its 3,200-plus foot elevation.
Apache bought the land cheap, because most geologists thought it had too much clay for fracking, the highly controversial method of blasting water and sand into the ground to reach oil. Now it looks like the company could be sitting on anywhere from $8-80 billion in oil and natural gas.
But of course, the process of extracting the oil could endanger or contaminate the area’s water table. That would spell absolute disaster for the 14,000 residents of Balmorhea and the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the pool.
Apache says it plans on taking every possible precaution to keep the process from harming the ecosystem. But residents and experts say it’s not enough, and even the threat of damaging the water table should preclude Apache from drilling. Thousands signed an ongoing petition to keep Apache away.
But the protests likely won’t be enough. The company still plans on setting up more than 3,000 drills to extract the resources. The company also needs water for fracking. Though it says it plans on bringing in as much non-potable water as possible (and recycling it), water is a precious commodity in the high desert. Using it to blast rock in a fashion that could further damage the water table doesn’t sit well with folks.
Yet, some see potential benefits as well. Namely, the money brought in from mineral land leases could be used to better the county’s public services, such as schools. But at what costs?
If something goes wrong, Balmorhea Pool and the State Park could face dire consequences. As the project continues, Reeves County residents hope to hold Apache accountable in dealing with such a delicate situation.
One thing is for certain: Balmorhea Pool should be on your Texas to-do list, and you should bump it up a few spots just in case.