Editor’s Note: This article was produced with funding from the Frank Allen Field Reporting Grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Many rural desert towns in West Texas rely on tourism to fuel the economy, but the associated growth in development means that more people need access to a limited amount of water. This is a contentious issue in a community where traditional infrastructure - like municipal water - is not always a given. But local leaders have implemented creative solutions that seem to be helping.

“Drilling wells out here is a gamble,” said Brad Anthenat, board director of the Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch, Inc. (POATRI). POATRI is a nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization that manages over 200,000 acres of privately owned land in Terlingua Ranch, an unincorporated rural desert community in West Texas.

A water tank sits on top of a hill above the Terlingua Ranch headquarters. The well sits downhill and pumps water up to the tank. Photo: Sarah Melotte

In the 1960s, when the population of Terlingua was around seven people, attorney Dave Witts and automotive designer Carroll Shelby purchased what would become Terlingua Ranch, hoping to sell a few parcels to hunters. By the time POATRI was formed in 1976, the 200,000 acres were split up into smaller parcels for sale to individual property owners. Modified trailer homes, RVs, and cabins are only a few of the various types of dwellings you’ll find dotting the landscape today.

When Brad and his wife, Marilynn, first moved to Terlingua Ranch, they had to get creative about their water use. They were living off grid when they first moved, using rainwater catchment, a system that redirects precipitation from the roof into a storage tank. Fortunately, the Big Bend area is the wettest desert in North America. But it’s still a desert, which makes conserving water a priority.

Property owners can drill their own private wells, but the expense and uncertainty mean most owners haul water in tanks in the back of pickups from a fill station at the property management headquarters, which sells water for 10 cents per gallon. And even that water doesn’t come in an unlimited supply.

In an effort to conserve, the POATRI board recently cut in half the amount of water each property owner can use every month. Property owners can take 500 gallons of water every two weeks instead of once a week. The average American single-family house uses more water than that in two days, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Desert communities have to be smart about their water use. POATRI general manager John Sellers said aquifers are depleting faster than they are recharging. Aquifers are underground basins of permeable rock that hold groundwater. When it rains, some of the precipitation seeps into the soil and recharges the aquifers. But if you’re using more water than the recharge rate, it’s only a matter of time before you run out.

“My goal is to get to where our use and our recharge is sustainable during periods of drought,” Sellers said.

The Chisos Mountain Range is part of what makes Big Bend National Park so spectacular. Photo: Sarah Melotte

This is an urgent matter because there is only one public well where Terlingua Ranch residents can fill up their water tanks if they don’t have a private well.

“We’re in a precipitous situation if something happens [to the well],” Sellers said. “We don’t have any alternative to provide water for our property owners and for the whole operation.”

Visitors Flock to West Texas for Desert Solitude

“I think most of us that came to live here left Austin, Dallas, or Houston to be a little quieter, a little more sane,” Brad told me over dinner one night in Terlingua Ranch.

I met Brad, Marilynn, and their two friends, Michelle Chiles and Amy Law, for a bite to eat at the Bad Rabbit Cafe. We sat at a cozy corner table and munched on tater tots, burgers, and sweet potato fries. I asked if any of them grew up in West Texas. All four of them shook their heads.

Brad said no one is really “from here”, except for the kids he teaches at the Terlingua Common School District. The students and their families are some of the few people in the area who are considered true locals, Brad said.

“I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could,” Chiles said.

Brad and Marilynn live in Terlingua Ranch, which borders Big Bend National Park. The park borders Mexico and the Rio Grande on its south side. (Source: Big Bend National Park boundaries. Terlingua Ranch interactive map. Map author: Sarah Melotte)

I understood why. The road to the restaurant was a half hour drive from the nearest two lane highway. I traveled from the overgrown forests of the Southern Appalachian mountains to get there, and the ecosystems could not have been more different. The Texas desert was exactly what I pictured when I thought of wide open spaces - cactuses, sagebrush, sandy soil, and a topography that lets you see all the way to the horizon.

The peaceful escape from city life is exactly what Brad and Marilynn originally used their Terlingua Ranch property for when they bought it in 2003. They were living over 400 miles away in Austin at the time, but they would retreat to the desert to camp or spend time on the Rio Grande, the 1,900 mile river that is the border between Mexico and Texas.

Brad and Marilynn now live in Terlingua Ranch full-time. And they’re not the only ones who were drawn to the desert and the people who call it home, even though they did beat a mass of newcomers to it before property prices ballooned.

Terlingua Ranch borders Big Bend National Park, a place National Geographic just named as one of the best places in the world to visit. Some folks who own property in Terlingua Ranch live there full-time, while others own second homes or rent Airbnbs to outdoor adventurers.

A survey conducted by Big Bend National Park showed that more than half a million people visited the park in 2022, a 12% increase since 2019, the last year the park was open full-time before the pandemic.

About 63,000 fewer visitors toured the park in 2022 compared to 2021, but there were still more visitors in 2022 than any of the previous years before 2021. In other words, 2021 might have been a bit of an anomaly, but the general trend of visitorship in the park is still on the rise.

The Airbnb industry took off in tandem with increases in the number of park visitors. Brewster County (where Big Bend and Terlingua Ranch are located) added 4,700 more Airbnb and Homeaway units to the market between March of 2021 and March of 2023, the latest month of data available. That’s a 43% increase in available units in just two years.

The graph displays some seasonal variation. More units are available to book during the busy season, and those numbers fall during the hottest months, when the average high is around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. But the overall trend points to an increasing number of Airbnbs. It can be a lucrative business for a local looking to bring in extra income.

Montie Mudd, who works as the general manager at a stable that takes tourists on horseback rides, also runs an Airbnb on the side. But Mudd said a lot of the Airbnb managers are not full-time residents of the area. Some of them are big-time investors from Houston or Dallas.

“In the last two years you’ve been seeing all these structures going up,” Mudd said in a phone interview.

More visitors means more patrons at nearby restaurants, too. Mudd said that during the busy season, which tends to be October through April, restaurants are so full that locals tend to avoid them altogether.

Visitors can rent our up-scale camping units like the ones shown in the photograph. Photo: Sarah Melotte

These changes bring economic success for this rural county, which saw $191 million in visitor spending and $81 million in labor income in 2022 from Big Bend National Park alone.

The phenomenon wasn’t unique to West Texas. After the pandemic allowed more people to work from home, digital nomads, as they’ve been dubbed, flocked to rural communities with natural beauty and outdoor amenities. The population in rural counties with tourism economies grew by 31,000 residents between 2021 and 2022, according to recent census estimates. That’s more growth than any other kind of rural county.

Some of those digital nomads even relocated permanently. These communities benefit from economic boosts brought on by more tourism, but they also tend to struggle to provide affordable housing to locals. In rural desert communities, water is the major concern.

The Hospitality Industry Looks for Sustainable Water Solutions

Sellers, the general manager at POATRI, reassured me that it’s not all doom and gloom on the water supply. In fact, recent water data from Terlingua Ranch shows they’ve been conserving more and more water every year since 2021.

In January of 2021, Terlingua Ranch used about 200,000 gallons of water. In January of 2023, that number was only 83,000 gallons, a 58% decrease in water use compared to 2021. And Sellers is optimistic that they can cut water use by another third.

To achieve this, POATRI is in the process of putting more rainwater catchment systems on existing structures. The shaded roofs that employees park their RVs under will soon redirect rainfall into a water tank. More modern infrastructure like low-use toilets and water fixtures will also help the ranch conserve water. Up to date fixtures will have less leakage, which can be a major source of water waste, especially for small communities.

Some Water Infrastructure Issues Become More Challenging in Rural Communities

For a well to be approved by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), it has to be able to produce 0.6 gallons per minute from every connection, Sellers said. Each water connection is meant to serve one unit, variously defined. In the quadruplexes POATRI rents for short term use, there are four connections for every small cabin - one per unit. The spigot in the lot where the six RVs are parked is also a single connection. 

But a single connection in a small community is different from a large house in an urban area. A single connection in an affluent Austin neighborhood might be supplying water to a single family house with several bathrooms, a large kitchen, a sprinkler system, a laundry room, and a swimming pool. A well that’s able to produce 0.6 gallons per minute might be appropriate for a unit like that, but Sellers says it’s not appropriate for Terlingua Ranch. 

“They expect us to produce in a day [per connection] what we would probably produce in six months,” Sellers said about the TCEQ requirements. “Something I want to work with TCEQ on is developing alternative certification standards.”

Rural desert communities won’t use as much as the average municipality in urban areas in the eastern part of the state.

A view from the mountain shows the short term rental cabins that POATRI owns. Photo: Sarah Melotte

“While both urban and rural communities face challenges related to aging infrastructure, the costs associated with water and wastewater projects can often make them difficult for rural communities to implement,” said Jessica Peña, deputy executive administrator of water supply and infrastructure at the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB).

But through the establishment of the Texas Water Fund, a source of infrastructure funding that Texans voted for this November, Peña and her colleagues are working to help small communities manage water. A portion of the funding is set aside specifically for rural communities with fewer than 150,000 residents. This means the projects Sellers is working on at Terlingua Ranch could be eligible for funding through the Texas Water Fund.

Peña said that it would also offer technical assistance to eligible water systems that want to apply for funding, something particularly helpful for rural municipalities that tend to have less staffing capabilities than their urban counterparts.

Property owners associations and water management systems can learn more about the assistance program on the Texas Water Development Board website.

Correction: This article was updated to reflect the correct TCEQ requirements.

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