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Georganne Bradbury, left, and Rick Bradbury inspect their water well as they give a tour of their water system at their home on Terlingua Ranch in South Brewster County. The couple has garnered a reputation among locals for their services as the area’s trusted water haulers, often delivering between three and four 500-gallon truckloads of water a day during peak tourism season.

Unchecked growth around Big Bend sparks debate over water — a prelude for Texas

No one knows how much water sits beneath the desert of Terlingua. Residents worry their wells will run dry, as developers and local officials cheer the tourism boom.

Diners sit for an evening meal at the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua Ghost Town. Despite its name, the Ghost Town has become a commercial hub in the region, offering art galleries, live shows, multiple restaurants and apparel shops for tourists to enjoy.
Terlingua Ghost Town, a former mining town abandoned by the 1930s, was revitalized in the 1980s. It has become a destination for tourists visiting the nearby Big Bend National Park.
Patrons warm up by a campfire outside an art exhibition in Terlingua Ghost Town. Beyond expeditions to the area's national and state parks, locals find ways to introduce tourists to their culture and traditions through annual events, including international chili cook offs and quirky gatherings such as the Chihuahuan Desert Challenge.
Terlingua Ranch, an association of more than 5,000 privately-owned tracts of land that form one of the area’s largest neighborhoods, sits 20 minutes north of Study Butte. The 200,000-acre ranch offers water for its approximately 1,500 full-time residents to purchase, but the service does come with restrictions.
In addition to restricting the ranch’s water service, the association’s board members are encouraging property owners to develop their own independent water supply. But establishing that kind of infrastructure can be costly. “Occasionally people will drill for wells out here. It is not a guaranteed water source, so it can be an expensive venture.” property services manager of Terlingua Ranch Hayley DeArman said.
Marcos Carley checks the water level of his portable tote as he and his wife purchase water from the Terlingua Ranch property owners association. Carley said he and his wife have to fill up their tote with nonpotable water every couple of weeks and must purchase drinking water from either Terlingua or Alpine, the latter being a nearly three-hour round trip.
Small dogs compete in the 21st annual Chihuahuan Desert Challenge. The event, featuring a dog costume contest, silent auction and live music, is a regular draw for locals and tourists alike, often taking place during the peak of tourism season.
Space Cowboys owner Slava Chupryna gives a tour of the communal restroom facilities at his glamping site outside of Study Butte. Chupryna posts signage at each of the communal bathrooms informing guests of “a water crisis” and usage limits for the camp’s showers.
South Brewster County residents and tourists congregate on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Company in December.
Thomas Skinner, co-owner of Skinner’s Drilling and Well Service, examines the type of rock his rig is excavating while drilling a water well outside of Alpine. Skinner, who also services the southern part of Brewster County, says new wells in that area can cost more than $30,000 and aren't always guaranteed to produce water.
Bubble rentals, owned by local entrepreneur Jeff Leach, are among several business ventures he runs in Study Butte and Terlingua. Leach, who once held a position on the Water Supply Corporation’s board of directors, believes the region has ample supply of water to sustain development, and instead is concerned about the lack of housing and infrastructure. “It's not water, it's housing,” Leach said.
Bartender Jimmy Verneuil washes glasses in a series of basins at the High Sierra Bar and Grill in Terlingua. The restaurant has taken a variety of steps to conserve water usage including reducing the flow of faucets and toilets, using sanitizing wash basins to clean glasses and only providing water to customers upon request. “It's amazing how many people in a restaurant say that they want water with their meal, and then they don't drink it,” said High Sierra owner Tamara Jo Drilling. “So we don't offer it.”
Bill Gilles, president of the Study Butte Water Supply Corporation in Terlingua, recalls an incident where one of the corporation's wells went offline and created an emergency in late 2023. Gilles said he missed his grandson’s wedding as he raced to restore service to the utility’s customers.
Robert Mace, executive director at The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, left, and Kevin Urbanczyk, director of the Rio Grande Research Center, right, speak during the Water in the Desert conference hosted by Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Mace and Urbaczyk presented attendees with general information on hydrology and water systems in the Chihuahuan Desert Region.
A motorist drives over Terlingua Creek along Ranch Road 170 in Study Butte in January.
Water gushes from Rick Bradbury’s truck into Shannon Montague’s reservoir. The Montagues will use the water to bathe, wash dishes and do their laundry. Much of their drinking water is purchased in Alpine, nearly 60 miles north of their home.
Rick Bradbury, left, monitors the flow of water from his truck as his wife, Georganne, right, talks with Shannon Montague during a delivery. For the past four years, Montague has purchased hundreds of gallons of water from the couple. “It used to be way harder before the Bradburys,” Montague said about finding water for her family.
Rick and Georganne Bradbury drive down a remote mountain road after delivering water to a client on Terlingua Ranch. Keeping his business afloat is a constant concern for Rick, who said he’s spent thousands of dollars on replacing car parts and spare water tanks damaged by the terrain.

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