El Paso

The Politics of Water And Woody Hunt

Author’s note: This article is necessarily long because breaking it up into smaller components loses the context that is important to it. We are providing a brief summary below for those who are not interested in the details of how and why decisions were made. We are also including a downloadable PDF version for offline reading at the end of the article.

In 2001 “water planners widely assumed that El Paso – ‘that parched desert city’ – would run out of water by 2030…Juárez, they said, might deplete its water in a matter of several years…into this ‘crisis’ scenario stepped would-be water marketers like El Paso businessman and University of Texas regent Woody Hunt and Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz…reports described the two men gallivanting around West Texas in search of underwater sources and concocting high-flying plans to sell water to El Paso.”

Texas Observer, February 10, 2006

Brief Summary

As El Pasoans recover from the most recent flooding, the obvious question has been why? Why hasn’t the local government fixed the flooding problems? Although an important question to have because of the recent flooding, there is an even more important question the community needs to ask – who controls the water policies for El Paso?

Water is the key to economic development in the city. Without water, the city’s economy suffers and its growth stagnates. As water becomes more difficult to acquire the more expensive the city becomes. Thus, the question of controls the water becomes central to El Paso’s future.

Most readers would be tempted to argue that it is the Public Service Board (PSB), a part of the city government, that controls El Paso’s water. They would be right on the surface. But who drives the policy? To answer the question of who controls El Paso’s water we need to go back to who has benefited by the PSB’s monopoly over developable land in El Paso’s city limits for decades and who inserted themselves into policy making at the PSB over 20 years ago.

The name is likely obvious to most readers by now – Woody Hunt.

This report examines how “the largest landowner in El Paso County,” the PSB, first led to the problems with the colonias, was instrumental in creating the illusion of water drought that wasn’t there to an attempt to pipe water in from Dell City to today’s flooding problems. In 2002, city council was trying to declare a “water emergency,” with the help of the PSB, while at the same time the PSB was arguing that “there was no drought in El Paso”.

The water emergency due to a non-existent drought, the PSB’s refusal to sell its land holdings to El Paso developers – except to Woody Hunt – to the city council enacting fees like the franchise fee, the impact fees and the storm water fees, has made the PSB central to the rising costs for El Paso’s homeowners. Today, although El Pasoans have been paying a storm water fee on their monthly water bills for almost 15 years, El Paso still floods.

To understand why, it is important to understand how Woody Hunt became an advisor on water policy to the PSB in May 2000. Here is the story about how that happened.

The Recent Floods And Water Policy

El Pasoans are dealing with the aftereffects of the recent flooding in the city. Among the flood damage, a persistent question arises; what about the storm water fees added to water bills each month? Aren’t they supposed to solve the flooding across the city? Or, as it is often claimed, is the destruction of the arroyos, to make way for new housing, the culprit for the flooding devastation? As valid as those questions are, the important question seldom asked is how does flooding and drought go together? Answering this fundamental question leads us directly to who makes the water policy for El Paso.

El Paso’s water utility is governed by the Public Service Board (PSB). The PSB is comprised of the mayor and six board members appointed by city council. Board members serve four-year terms. In 1952 city council gave the PSB full authority over El Paso’s water and wastewater systems. City council added the authority over the stormwater utility in 2007. On paper, the PSB is separate from the city with its own board and authority to issue revenue bonds to fund its operations. However, the PSB is an arm of the City of El Paso because it enjoys immunity against lawsuits. [13]

In 2015, city council, to balance the city’s budget, levied a water franchise fee on the PSB, as if the PSB were a stand-alone business. In essence, the city was adding a new tax on El Paso’s homeowners by taxing its own water utility. The fee, or tax, added about $1.33 a month to water consumer’s bill each month. On March 1, 2020, the city increased the franchise fee to $6.55 million, according to the water utility. To offset the fee, El Pasoans’ water bills include a $1.24 fee each month. (water utility website accessed on August 29, 2021)

The PSB sets the fees for water usage and applies the wastewater and stormwater fees to the water bills each month. As part of its mandate to supply water to El Paso, the PSB buys and holds on to land in and around El Paso. In 1988, the PSB was “the largest landowner in El Paso County, with its holdings concentrated in Northwest and Northeast El Paso El Paso as well as major holdings in the water-rich Tornillo area.” [14] There is no reason to suggest that has changed since 1988.

The Colonias

For generations, the American Dream has been homeownership. As El Paso’s metroplex expanded, poorer neighborhoods left El Paso’s downtown and moved to the outskirts of the city. Lack of affordable housing led poor El Pasoans to build colonias. Colonias have been a part of Texas’ history since the 1950’s as Mexican migrant workers built houses on small plots of land sold to them by the famers where they worked. Texas, being a “property rights” state, did not have laws governing land development outside of the cities and counties. Without laws governing how land could be sold, land lacking access to water was sold by the landowners. These unregulated neighborhoods led to the controversy over colonias in El Paso in the 1980’s. Even though laws were enacted in the 1990’s by the Texas legislature regulating what was required to sell land for housing, the colonia problem has persisted. In 2017, there were still 337 communities, the majority near El Paso that lack access to water. [15] Lack of water led to increased incidences of diseases and persistent poverty as the homeowners put their lifesavings into worthless land. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs estimated that in 2014 there were 90,582 people living in colonias in El Paso County.

Although Texas laws were a factor in the colonia problem, it was the PSB that was singled out by then-County Attorney Joe Lucas in 1988 as “the major underlining cause of the abominable conditions of the colonias,” which were “the ill-advised policies of the Public Service Board and its morally reprehensible denial of water and sewer services” to the colonias. [14] Lucas blamed the PSB for its refusal to extend water access to the colonias. Lucas wrote in 1988 that the PSB is a “woefully misnamed entity” that “has a stranglehold on the people of El Paso County and it will not let go.” [14]

According to the county attorney, the PSB discouraged extending water service to the poor neighborhoods in El Paso’s Lower Valley while encouraging development in more affluent areas of town. According to Lucas, the PSB stood “to benefit the most from the quality affluent developments” through its control of water. [14]

Over thirty-years later, the PSB continues to have a stranglehold on El Paso’s access to water.

The Drought That Wasn’t

On September 11, 2001, while the Twin Towers were collapsing from the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the then-mayor of El Paso, Ray Caballero declared a water emergency, ordering El Pasoans not to water their lawns. The connection between the “water emergency” and the collapse of the twin towers was never made public, but from that moment, water politics leveraged public policy in El Paso.

During the 2001 mayoral election, the threat of water shortages was briefly discussed by three of the mayoral candidates. On March 29, 2001, at the Border Issues Encounter at UTEP, Ray Caballero, Belen Robles and Presi Ortega argued that the lack of sufficient water was a threat to the border. Caballero argued that the water issue could not be solved if Cd. Juárez was not involved in the solution. Caballero added that Juárez was “facing immediate shortages.”

Caballero told the audience that if elected, he committed himself “to calling for an emergency water summit among the mayors of El Paso, Las Cruces and Cd. Juárez.” He never did.

Larry Francis, who was also running against Caballero in 2001, went on the Barbara Perez radio show in March 2001 and said that the PSB “had taken care of the water problems”. The week before, the El Paso Times had released a privately funded report that reported that El Paso would run out of water by 2025. Who funded the report was not disclosed, however readers will note later that a Hunt-funded report eerily argues the same points. Meanwhile Belen Robles’ campaign platform centered on reforming the PSB, labeling the PSB “the worst of the Good Old Boy politics of Old El Paso”. Robles argued for a “water resource analysis” to begin tackling the pending water issues facing El Paso.

But the March 2001 report published by the El Paso Times would become the catalyst to what would come next. Although touted as a regional problem, it was the City of El Paso that would move to declare a water emergency.

The Water Emergency

On May 7, 2002, the city council agenda included item 31A. It read “an Ordinance amending Title 15 (Public Services), Chapter 13 (Water Conservation Ordinance) of the City of El Paso Municipal Code to require commercial car washes issued building permits for construction after June 1, 2002, to use no more than fifty (50) gallons of water per vehicle washed; to provide that for new residential sites after June 1, 2002, no turf grass shall be used for more than fifty percent (50%) of the total site; to provide that for new commercial sites after June 1, 2002, no turf grass shall be used for more than thirty-three and one-third percent (33 1/3%) of the total site; to provide that the water conservation office of the El Paso Water Utilities shall maintain a list of the only approved turf grasses for use within the City; and amending Section 15.13.120 to delete the requirement that the Mayor obtain the recommendation of the Public Service Board prior to declaring a water emergency; and make other water conservation changes; and providing an effective date.”

It was the last sentence that caught the community by surprise. The ordinance, in addition to limiting water usage, was taking the emergency declaration authority away from the PSB and giving it to the mayor. Under the ordinance, if adopted, the mayor would have the unilateral authority to close and restrict private wells, lakes, ponds, swimming pools, car washing businesses, irrigation schedules and regulate the amount of water use at home without a Public Service Board recommendation. It meant that the mayor could declare a water emergency unilaterally and affect private water interests with legal impunity. The mayor could also restrict land development through a water emergency by limiting the PSB’s water meter installations and limiting its ability to sell over 20,000 acres of land it controlled in El Paso.

At the city council meeting, Caballero claimed that a recommendation from the Public Service Board “would take too long in case of a national emergency”. The city attorney was directed to retool the language and explain what emergencies Caballero was talking about.

What had precipitated this call to give the mayor authority over the declaration of a water emergency?

Earlier in the year, city council had passed a resolution directing the PSB to release fifty acres of land to be sold and developed. Ray Caballero, who did not want the land released to local developers, vetoed the resolution, telling council that he could not sign the resolution because “it would be illegal.” His reasoning was that city council did not have authority over the PSB, which was and is a unit of the City of El Paso. City council accepted the rational and allowed the veto to stand.

However, two weeks later, there was one very small item buried in the middle of the city council agenda that authorized the mayor the right to call for a water emergency. Until then, the authority was the PSBs. Ray Caballero had argued about eight months previously that he alone needed the authority over El Paso’s water supply because of possible terrorist attacks. Charlie McNabb, the mayor’s executive assistant, said that the mayor was seeking this unprecedented power over the water because on September 11, they had received a call from the governor’s office telling them that the Whitehouse was telling them that there was a possible threat to El Paso’s water supply. No one had heard about this.

We contacted the governor’s office asking for confirmation about the threat to El Paso’s water supply. The governor’s press secretary and the head of the Texas homeland security told us they knew nothing of a danger to El Paso’s water supply. (note: at the time our publication was known as the El Paso Metro)

We then asked Charlie McNabb who he had spoken to. McNabb could not recollect the name, gender or title of the persons at the governor’s office that had called him. We asked for call logs and were told none existed. Unable to convince city council that terrorism required the mayor to have the authority to declare water emergencies, Ed Archuleta, the PSB’s CEO announced that El Paso was facing serious “drought” conditions. The PSB wanted to implement Phase I and Phase II declarations and raise water fees because of the drought conditions they said were imminent. Archuleta also argued for allowing the mayor to have authority over the water.

Only a few years later, the PSB’s own hydrologist, Bill Hutchison was telling those that would listen in 2006 that the PSB had land “that would serve” El Paso’s water needs “until 2060,” and that Hudspeth County was still available beyond that, if needed. [6] Hutchison likely had this information about land in 2001 when Caballero was trying to unilaterally declare a water emergency for El Paso, as this type if information takes time to collect, analyze and formulate into a cohesive planning document.

In September 2002, city council declared there was no need to declare a water emergency after the PSB declared that there “was no drought in El Paso,” however the PSB did say that there was a drought in New Mexico and that El Paso should prepare.

What drove the narrative of a water emergency that did not seem to exist?

Hunt Moves To Control Water

Hunt started working with the PSB in May 2000. The partnership was to complete “serious research of the possible use of Dell City water” for El Paso’s water needs. [1] Hunt continues to use research to manage the public policy agenda to this day. The PSB-Hunt research produced the Water Resource Development: The Challenge to a Region booklet. Hunt paid almost $3 million for the study. The booklet argued for the PSB to use Dell Valley groundwater instead of the “quickly depleting supply of fresh water in the Hueco Bolson,” adding that the water utility’s plan for a desalination plant had little “long-term prospects”. [1]

The $3 million research paper used to convince the PSB to seek Dell land was “commissioned by the Hunt-Anschutz team” that “fueled widespread doomsday” water scenario for El Paso. The old myth that the fresh water would be gone by 2030 kept getting repeated year after year, decade after decade, without really recognizing” that the conservation methods implemented by the water utility “in the late 1970s” did not support the myth. [7]

In March 2004, Woody Hunt “convinced the PSB to begin negotiating with Dell Valley landowners to
bargain for water rights”. [1] Readers should note that Hunt’s development company depends on water for selling its land. Controlling the city’s water supply not only allows Hunt to continue to build, but coupled with Hunt controlling PSB land holdings, the largest in the city, it also allows Hunt to monopolize land development in El Paso.

Hunt had been buying Dell Valley farmland for years.

Ed Archuleta told the El Paso Inc. in 2004 that the Dell land would provide El Paso “water for 100 years or more.” The land’s source of water is the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons, which in 2004 provided an estimated 60,000-acre feet of water per year. In 2004, El Paso was consuming about 115,000-acre feet of water. [1]

Today, according to the PSB, over 55% of the water consumed in El Paso comes from the Hueco and Mesilla bolsons. Only 5% comes from desalination. (PSB website accessed on August 25, 2021.) In addition to the Dell land, Hunt also owned 5,000 acres of land in the salt flats in Hudspeth County. One problem the PSB had with the water in the Bone Springs-Victorio Peak aquifer is that it “is too brackish” to drink. The water utility needed to treat it with reverse osmosis desalination before importing it into El Paso. Hunt suggested that his salt flats land could be used to dispose the osmosis brine produced by the desalination. [1] Hunt wanted the PSB to pay him for using his salt flats land for disposing of the brine.

But water speculation in Texas was growing exponentially at the time. In August 2005, a water speculator, Rio Nuevo, published Business Plan for Assessment of Groundwater Resources, a water source report identifying El Paso as a potential customer in the coming years. [6]

Although El Paso had been mentioned as the “obvious” water purchaser, the chief hydrologist for the El Paso Water Utility, Bill Hutchison, said that was not true. [6] Nonetheless, water rules in Hudspeth County were being rewritten. According to the pamphlet, El Paso was planning “to invest $629 million in water infrastructure and supply before 2051,” the Rio Nuevo report stated. [6]

In the meantime, by 2004, Hunt had teamed up with Philip Anschutz, who owned large parcels of Dell land. Together with the landowners in their group, they controlled 22,000 acres of Dell land, making it financially feasible to build a water pipeline to supply El Paso with water. [1]

A quirk in Texas law allowed speculators to sell as much water as they could “pump” even if in pumping the underground water it “dries up his own water and his neighbor’s water along with it.” It is called “rule of capture” giving ownership of the water below ground to the landowner while the state owned the water above ground. [8]

Philip Anschutz And Hunt

Hunt teamed up with Philip Anschutz, who at the time owned 7,000 acres of Dell Valley land, to “make it easy” for the PSB to buy Dell land. They formed Dell Valley Water Rights Owners, a group of Dell landowners, controlling 22,000 acres of Dell Valley land, to make it easier for the PSB to negotiate with one entity for all the land, instead of with individual landowners. [1] Anschutz, who is part of a group of wealthy individuals funding anti-LGBTQ groups, [3] is an active billionaire philanthropist funding medical campuses in Colorado and conservative religious groups.

By 2006, both men owned “thousands of acres over the Bone Spring-Victorio Peak Aquifer and have muscled the Texas Legislature and the local groundwater district into writing rules that favor their water rights at the expense of some longtime landowners.” [7]

The Hunt And Anschutz Land Deals

Sometime in 2004, Dell farmer Mike Lynch sold the water rights of his 25,000-acre ranch “for up to $10 million.” However, two months before Lynch died, a change in the Dell water district’s rules “stripped the Lynch family of most rights to water underneath” their land and gave their water rights “to neighboring landowners, including a company run by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz.” [2]

In the mid-1950’s in response to drought and “intense irrigated agricultural industry” in Hudspeth County, the Hudspeth County Underground Water Conservation District No. 1 was created “to regulate the Bone Springs-Victorio Peak Aquifer which produces groundwater for the region.” The district’s goal was to manage the water usage to keep the aquifer at “an historically optimal level.” [5] Gene Lutrick was a founder of the Hudspeth water district. Around 2006 he lost his job because of pressures from “the private sector and the El Paso Water Utility.” [6]

The Hunt-Anschutz 2006 plan called for El Paso to begin “the importation of 15,000 acre-feet of water per year from Dell City, starting in 2031, and 50,000 acre-feet by 2061.” To do so, the El Paso water utility needed to build a pipeline, projected to cost $535 million to be paid for by revenue bonds that would be added to El Paso water users’ fees. [7] In 2006, the water utility did not own any land in Dell City.

In response to the Hunt-Anschutz pipeline plant, then-Texas Senator Eliot Shapleigh filed a bill in 2003 requiring that Texas fix the rates of water “transported over long distances.” The bill was not heard by the legislature. [7]

In 2016, El Paso Water Utilities purchased 18,000 of Dell land, not for its land but for its water rights from CLM Ranch, owned by Philip Anschutz for a little under $50 million. [4]

That El Paso was quickly running out of water had gotten the attention of speculators across Texas. Boone Pickens had plans for 150,000 acres of land he controlled in Roberts County. He was “going to sell it to cities like San Antonio and El Paso that are running out of water,” Pickens told the Texas Monthly in 2001. [8]

Although the news that El Paso was about to run out of water led to land speculations across Texas for water rights, the persistent news that there was no drought kept impeding the plan to control the water, so the PSB had to get political.

The PSB Gets Political

At 6:00 p.m. on December 17, 2002, the PSB held a meeting to discuss their proposed 9.1 percent price hike for water rates. The board is charged with providing the community with an adequate water supply. Ed Archuleta, the-then manager of the El Paso Water Utility gave a power point presentation making the argument that the water rate increase was necessary.

Among his arguments was that El Paso was in a drought and higher rates would discourage water usage. He also announced that El Paso would be partnering with Ft. Bliss to build a desalination plant to turn brackish water into drinking water. The proposed plant would cost the city about $10,000,000. Another argument made by Archuleta was that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had imposed new limits on arsenic levels in water, which necessitated an expensive treatment process to comply with the new regulations.

Archuleta further argued that El Paso’s water was “cheap” in comparison to other cities and that the proposed 9.1 percent increase would only cost the average consumer $3.05 more per month. On December 20, 2002, the El Paso Times wrote on its editorial page that “a higher rate is justified” and that it was only 10 cents more per day for the average consumer who paid $18.74 per month for water usage in 2002.

But there was something else at play.

On October 12, 2002, the PSB held a meeting in which then-mayor Ray Caballero attended. At the meeting, Caballero told the PSB board that the city was lacking leadership because El Paso did not have any big companies. To remedy this, Caballero told the PSB board that it needed “to take on leadership goals” in areas like the economy, planning and growth. One PSB board member commented that the PSB could get water for parks but couldn’t guarantee things like mowing, equipment and bathrooms.” Caballero responded with “that’s what I’m talking about,” the PSB “can push this by saying you will not allow parks to be abandoned.” Caballero went on to state, “you know how city budgets can cut some things like libraries…well you can take the lead and push” back on that. Caballero told them that the PSB “might be suited to push certain areas,” and that the PSB board should, “push, push, push on water.”

What Caballero was telling the PSB board was that they should use the money from the water utility to fund non-mandated projects.

Caballero went on to say, “you need to be more aggressive,” adding that he knew “this will make people uncomfortable, but they will get used to it if you push, push, push and make sure this community has the same facilities other communities” have. Caballero added, “because if you leave it to someone else and get a guy with no backbone to provide the city with the taxes to operate, then they go down the road and they cut necessary services.”

At this point, Ed Archuleta said, “we could be more aggressive in our economic development, but I have not been given the charge.” A board member said, “land management policy like many of the issues you raised – like park issues and so forth, could easily be incorporated into our master plan, in our properties.” The board member continued, “we will propose a binding master plan and anyone who wants to purchase land has to abide by our master plan criteria.” Master plans become crucial to land monopoly later.

Another voice chimed in, “broaden the mission and we’ll get you the resources,” they said.

Caballero then told the PSB board, “buy some of the BHI land,” adding, “buy it and bank it.”

By 2003, the PSB took Caballero’s suggestions and started to get more control over land resources in El Paso.

The PSB’s Drought And Water Emergency Response Plan

On February 13, 2003, Ed Archuleta presented city council with a revised Drought and Water Emergency Response Plan. It set in motion many of the water woes that El Pasoans deal with today. These include limited watering days, storm water fees that have not mitigated the flooding in the city and rising water rates, among other issues.

At the forefront of Archuleta’s plan was the drought that did not exist.

In the 1990’s, the PSB launched a water conservation program to address the city’s water demand. By 2002, El Paso residents had reduced water consumption from a 1989 high of 200 gallons per person to 155 gallons in 2002. At city council, Archuleta stated that El Paso was facing a serious drought. He argued that limited snowfall and rain in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico over the past few years had left the Elephant Butte Reservoir in New Mexico at 15 percent of its normal capacity. According to him, El Paso was then receiving about 50 percent of its water supply from the Rio Grande which was to be severely curtailed in 2003.

City council then voted to implement Stage 1 restrictions on water usage that began on September 9, 2003. Stage 1 required residents to reduce indoor and outdoor water use by 25 percent and required restaurant not to serve water unless requested. Council also increased the number of water conservation enforcement officers. Stage 1 is the first of three stages of increasing severe water conservation measures outlined in the El Paso Water Utilities Drought and Water Emergency Management Response Plan. They are enacted as drought conditions become worse.

Archuleta asked city council to consider raising the water restrictions to Stage 2 by April 2004. Stage 2 limited outdoor watering to once per week and only before 9:00 a.m. and after 7:00 p.m. for two hours. The last number of the street address determined on what day homeowners could water their lawns. Parks and schools served by the El Paso Water Utilities were provided a special permit issued by the water utility, reducing their water consumption based on their previous usage. Golf courses irrigating with potable water supplied by the El Paso Water Utilities and municipal golf courses were also issued special permits, reducing consumption by a specific amount per month based on reduction targets set to meet basic demand.

Landscaping that was not xeriscapes were also banned.

Also, all evaporative cooler continuous bleed-off lines were disconnected or had to be replaced with an automatic water drainage system. Routine fire hydrant flushing, and testing was curtailed.

Also, after April 1, 2004, existing swimming pools could no longer be drained and refilled with potable water supplied by El Paso Water Utilities. The order also required single-family residential swimming pools to be covered when not in use.

Water users who were caught violating the water consumption rules a second time were subject to having a restriction device placed on their water meter or have their water meter downsized at the customer’s cost.

The city council’s order also said that a drought surcharge may be added to water rates in the future.

The Evaporative Cooler Debate Shows Intent

One of the issues about the drought emergency were the drip lines used in evaporative coolers common at the time in El Paso. The bleed lines bleed water as it cooled the house. Rocky Bacchus, President of A/C Experts, Inc. persistently argued against requiring homeowners to block their bleed lines during Stage 2 restrictions. Bacchus argued that the bleed lines were necessary and that the bleed line restrictions requested by the PSB put homeowners at risk of losing their warranties on their air-conditioning units and could also potentially create a health hazard for the community.

The PSB refused to modify the bleed lines, until, March 26, 2003, when city council agreed to modify the Stage 2 restrictions for the bleeder lines.

The previous day, Bacchus had proposed to the PSB that rather than disconnecting the bleeder lines or installing a flush unit for Stage 2, the homeowners could simply use the bleed as drip irrigation. According to Bacchus, the demand to cut off the bleed lines or use a flush unit not only canceled the warranties but it put homeowners in danger by the stagnant water in the coolers.

After serval tries, Bacchus was able to convince the El Paso Building Services Department and the PSB that by allowing for the use of drip irrigation, the city would achieve an 8% water use reduction and allow residents the ability to keep their warranties intact. The agreement called for city council to modify section seven of the Stage 2 Drought Management Ordinance by adding “all evaporative coolers that require a bleed off system must have a restricted bleed off or an automatic drainage system.”

In supporting his proposal, Bacchus told city council that the bleed restrictor is a “drip irrigation restrictor” and generally cost $0.17 to $0.25 each. Bureau of Reclamation studies showed that the restrictors “could save up to 8% of a home’s summer water use and achieve 32% of the 25% water reduction requested by El Paso Water Utilities.”

City council agreed after Rocky Bacchus implored the skeptical city council over several meetings that his solution had merit.

Stage 2 Declaration

On March 4, 2003, city council held a meeting to act on the Stage 2 water emergency proposal. The issue was a combination of four agenda items which all dealt with the water Stage 2 request by the PSB. Ed Archuleta began the discussion with a presentation explaining the “very, very serious drought” the city was experiencing. Archuleta’s presentation detailed his years of efforts in preparing for this drought in obvious defense to the criticism he had recently received from the public. The presentation included references to why no more wells had been drilled, the problem of timing and issues with Water District 1 and where public water consumption is highest. Archuleta reiterated the need to reduce outdoors watering to once a week. According to Archuleta’s presentation, those who spoke at the PSB’s February 19 meeting, “about 50% supported the PSB action.” He concluded that the reason the PSB had not investigated economic incentives for water conservation was because of the “time lag before a customer sees the bill”, which would be too late to address the current issue. Archuleta also admitted that El Paso’s water usage had dropped to 153 daily gallons per consumer.

Nineteen residents signed up to comment on the proposed water rationing. All were against the proposed Stage 2 implementation. Two air conditioning installers stated that refrigerated air conditioners use more water and waste more energy than the evaporative coolers the PSB was intent on convincing residents to remove. One installer said that his customers now regretted taking up the PSB on its rebate offer to convert to refrigerated air conditioners. His customers, he said, complained that their electrical bills had increased by $300 a month. Sally Hollman, a horticulturalist, stated that Archuleta based his assertions on “erroneous information.” Joel Jones pointed out that why should residents take the brunt of the proposed measures while schools and parks are exempted. City council candidate Susan Austin asked if there was a possibility of increased rates in the future because if the PSB was effective in reducing consumption by 25% then the water utility would lose 25% of its expected revenues. Adrian Ballasteros asked if city council wanted to turn “El Paso into a dust bowl?” Norman Brown asked how many thousands of gallons of water are wasted because of the lack of pipe maintenance. He suggested that the PSB should sell some of its vast land ownership to fund a repair program to reduce water waste.

John Ivey stated that the one a day watering would not work and that the real issue was one of credibility. He suggested that this is a short-term problem and that the PSB should do something emphatic. Richard H. White, associate professor of the Texas A&M Experimental Station spent some time explaining to city council the fallacies of the PSB’s plan. Among the items he pointed to, quality of life was most important and the one that will most likely be affected should the council implement the measures. He advocated a science-based solution to the problem. When asked why the PSB did not consider raising rates, Archuleta stated that he would have to implement a 65% across the board rate increase. When queried about urban sprawl, Archuleta reluctantly admitted that the new affordable houses that were being built were using less than 100 gallons of water per person per day.

Then-mayor Ray Caballero began the city council’s comments by stating that this was a “serious issue.” Representative Jan Sumrall stated that Archuleta was in this position today because “he was watching out for the community.” Representative Larry Medina stated that he “believes his experts (Archuleta and the PSB) and that this is a matter of believing the PSB.” Representative John Cook stated that he was in favor of pricing instead of policing. Representative Dan Power indicated that he concurs with Cook and that he has a problem with the message the city is sending out with the use of the word “drought.” He added that he would not support any legislation that included the word “drought.”

Representative Paul Escobar stated that he would not support any plan that only allowed one day watering. Representative Luis Sariñana stated that if they continue to send the message that El Paso is in a severe drought that it will eventually affect El Paso’s economic development plans. Representative Anthony Cobos stated that with the proposed measures there were only two options for El Paso. “We either become a dust bowl or people will cheat and water at night”, either way the measure will not have the desired effect. Representative Rose Rodriguez reminded everyone that 12 inspectors were not enough for enforcement. Under a motion made by John Cook, city council returned the PSB request back to them for changes. Larry Medina was the only councilperson to vote against sending it back. An obviously bothered Archuleta stated that he “can’t support the measures without the restrictions.”

The PSB was asked to bring back their revised request within two weeks. City council had signaled that it was expecting the PSB to bring back a proposal that does not restrict watering to one day and instead penalizes heavy water users through higher rates.

Stage 2 restrictions were slightly modified by the PSB and were implemented by the city council, only to be reversed by the next city council.

The Stage 2 Emergency Suddenly Changed

On June 10, 2003, Joe Wardy assumed office as the new mayor. That week the PSB announced that the water utility was activating new water wells to replenish the city’s water supply. The PSB also announced using mini-desalination units to help with the water supply. During the Caballero administration, the PSB was reluctant to activate new water wells, although it was suggested as an alternative to the Stage 2 water restrictions.

The PSB had changed direction as a new administration took control at the city council. However, the water emergency debacle was not about a drought or even control of land but rather, it was about how to manage land development through water.

Hunt And The Water Emergency

It is important to understand the water politics with context. The PSB controls who gets water meters within the city limits. Without water meters, homebuilders cannot sell homes. However, the PSB does not control water meters outside of the city limits. Around 2002, the largest landholders outside of the city limits were Hunt and Foster Schwartz. This allowed them to monopolize land development in the El Paso area if the PSB limited the supply of water meters in the city limits. In addition to the land holdings outside of the city limits, the PSB’s land holdings inside the city limits controlled who built inside the city.

But there is still another dynamic at play. The PSB had been buying land in Van Horn and Valentine since 1993 “for the express purpose of mining water deep underground pools and piping it to back to El Paso.” [8] Whether Dell City or the PSB water mining ranches, the water they produced needed to be piped into El Paso.

That’s where Woody Hunt comes back into the picture. Whether it is owning the land where the water comes from, like in Dell City or the water from PSB land, there is a potential revenue source for Hunt. In March 2001, Hunt “released the findings of a year-long study concluding that construction of a pipeline from Valentine, Van Horn, or Dell City to El Paso is feasible and that water can be delivered to El Paso at reasonable market rates.” [8]

Hunt was positioning himself not only as the source of water for El Paso but also as its transportation service through a study he commissioned. The study, itself, suggested that “Hunt Building Corporation is the ideal entity to build the pipeline and have water flowing into the city within three years.” [8]

In 2001, Ray Caballero was trying to unilaterally declare a water emergency while Hunt was producing reports that said El Paso was about to run out of water and his company could solve the problem within three years. [8]

Not only did Hunt have control of over 5,000 acres of Dell City land, plus another 20,000 through his partnership with Philip Anschutz, but Hunt, as a major investor, also had right-of-way access to the Union Pacific Railroad, crucial to the proposed pipeline into El Paso. [8]

In Dell City, Hunt was “admired” by some “for his success, his civic contributions, his buildings…but if he uses his power to take our water and dry up our community, we’re not so admiring.” [8]

Water were not the only resource Hunt was after because ultimately it was development that flowed revenues to him. For that, Hunt needed land. The PSB owned the most land in the city and controlled who got water meters. If the PSB sold its land only to Hunt, then he could monopolize the land in El Paso and around it.

Hunt PSB Land Acquisitions

In addition to the Dell other land purchases Hunt was making, he was also looking to buy PSB land. The PSB is generally understood to be the largest landholder in El Paso County. [14] By not selling land since 2007, the water utility took away an important revenue stream for its operations. [17] Thus it needed to raise water rates and create new fees to shore up its revenue stream.

In 2007, Hunt “lobbied hard” for PSB land on El Paso’s westside near the Franklin Mountains. The PSB, at first, refused to sell the land to Hunt citing the water and storm runoff infrastructure that had not been built to support new development in the area. [18] Nonetheless, the PSB agreed to sell land to Woody Hunt, who later canceled the sale because of the recession [17] that started in December 2007 and lasted through June 2009. The recession was caused by the housing crisis. Hunt had promised to build a master-planned community on the land, before pulling out of the deal. [17]

In 2019, the PSB controlled 22,430 acres of land, much of it in the Northeast and Northwest of El Paso. In 2019, the PSB approved the first land sale in two decades when it agreed to sell 117 acres to Carefree Homes. [17]

In 2018, city council approved trading 2,313 acres of westside land Hunt backed out off in return for 44 acres of land owned by Paul Foster. The Foster land was to be used for the Great Wolf Lodge resort. [17] In 2020, Great Wolf Resorts pulled out of the deal with the city, citing the pandemic. [19] In March 2021, the City agreed to sell the Great Wolf Resorts land to a commercial developer.

Hunt was the beneficiary of PSB land sales for years and even backed off purchases as the economy changed. Master planning later enacted by city council coincidently put Hunt in the position to buy up PSB land because the planning required large tracts of land that were not feasible for most El Paso developers. But even Hunt found the master plans too onerous forcing him to back out of land deals with the PSB under the guise of economic strife.

Nonetheless, the PSB’s lack of land sales put pressure on its revenue sources. The Ft. Bliss desalination plant also put additional pressure on the PSB’s finances. The city council was also having a difficult time balancing its budget with the many quality of life projects it started to undertake, including the baseball stadium for the Chihuahuas team, owned in part by Hunt. To address the financial difficulties, the PSB and the city started adding fees passed on to water users.

Storm 2006

According to the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management’s website, there has only been one “notable” flooding event in El Paso. It was the flooding of downtown and residential areas in 2006. According to the website, in 2006 El Paso “received 19.5 inches of rain.” (website accessed on August 27, 2021)

The Weather Service says that “Storm 2006” occurred between July 27 and August 4, 2006. Although the airport registered 6.6 inches of water, “or about three-fourths of its annual precipitation,” parts of El Paso’s westside received “10 inches in eight hours.” July and August were “the wettest three months on record” in El Paso. [10]

The 2006 storm caused an estimated $200 to $300 million in damages. [10]

Because of the 2006 flood event, the city council transferred the responsibility of the city’s storm water system to a new Storm Water Utility. The PSB was directed to plan, finance, maintain and manage the storm water utility. [16] The transfer over the responsibility over the storm water system was accomplished on June 19, 2007, (ordinance 016668) when the city council declared the El Paso drainage system a public utility. The city put the PSB in charge of the new storm water utility.

The storm water fee is applied by the PSB based on how much of the property’s land is impervious to drainage. For example, the driveway cement slab and the house’s foundation. Several lawsuits were filed against the storm water fee by commercial developers who argued that the fee rate was unfair to them and community activist Ray Gilbert arguing that the city did not have the authority to create the storm water utility. Regardless of the lawsuits, the storm water fee has been a part of consumer’s water bill since then.

Earlier this month, about 4 inches of water flooded parts of El Paso, at least one woman died, forcing water consumers to ask if the water storm fees, they pay are being used appropriately.

Twenty Years of Woody Hunt Water Policy

Over the last 20 or so years, El Paso’s water politics have evolved from a dangerous drought necessitating a declaration of a water emergency to flooding requiring storm water fees added to homeowners’ water bills. In both cases, “over development” has been blamed along with the destruction of the arroyos added to development as the catalyst for the new danger – flooding.

The problem with over development being behind the water politics is that a major developer, Woody Hunt, injected himself into the Public Service Board (PSB) to manipulate the management of El Paso’s water supply and use. Hunt’s business revenues, however, seem to have continued to rely on commercial and residential development by monopolizing land resources while attempting to control the water supplies. Hunt’s plans included trying to monopolize the water itself.

To argue that development, even over development, is the catalyst for El Paso’s water woes is fair to make, but the target of who the developers are often misses the fact that Hunt is the developer trying to control the city’s developments through research that creates “master plans” that limits developments to those that only serve his bottom line. More important is that the water woes are just one component of how Hunt manipulates public policy to mold El Paso’s economy for his purposes.

Water, as complicated and as necessary that it is, serves to demonstrate how public policy has been manipulated for over 20 years by Woody Hunt.

Editor’s note:
Martín Paredes extensively covered city politics from 2001 through mid-2005 for the online publications: El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune. Unless specifically noted, the information presented in this article comes from contemporaneous notes taken by the author at the time of the events depicted here.

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Quality investigative reporting like this requires hours of research and associated fees for access to documents. As an independent news source, we rely on our readers to help us offset our costs. We need the support of our readers to allow us to continue to produce reporting that is important to El Paso’s public policy agenda decisions. Please consider making a small donation today to help us produce more reports like this.

A Plea For Help
Quality investigative reporting like this requires hours of research and associated fees for access to documents. As an independent news source, we rely on our readers to help us offset our costs. We need the support of our readers to allow us to continue to produce reporting that is important to El Paso’s public policy agenda decisions. Please consider making a small donation today to help us produce more reports like this.

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Footnotes:

  1. Mike Mrkvicka, “Behind the Dell Water Deal,” El Paso, Inc., March 14-20, 2004.
  2. Jim Carlton, “A Thirsty El Paso Prompts a Brawl In The Texas Desert,” The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2004.
  3. Scott Bixby, “Christian Billionaires Are Funding a Push to Kill the Equality Act,” The Daily Beast, June 1, 2021.
  4. David Crowder, “El Paso buys Anschutz ranch,” El Paso, Inc. November 14, 2016.
  5. Opinion: Hudspeth County Underground Water Conservation District No. 1 v. Guitar Holding Company, L.P., Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso, August 26, 2011.
  6. Greg Harman, “Rough Water Ahead,” Texas Observer, February 10, 2006.
  7. Forest Wilder, “Sidebar: Water’s For Fightin’,” Texas Observer, February 10, 2006.
  8. Joe Nick Patoski, “Boone Pickens Wants To Sell You His Water,” Texas Monthly, August 2001.
  9. “Water and Wastewater Annual Price Escalation Rates for Selected Cities across the United States,” U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, September 2017.
  10. Thomas E. Gill and Timothy W. Collins, “different Impacts of Flash Flooding Across the Paso del Norte,” Urban Watershed Management, National Weather Service, Southwest Hydrology, January/February 2010.
  11. “El Paso Water Conservation Plan,” El Paso Water Utility, 2019.
  12. “Water and Wastewater Impact Fees, 2018 Update,” El Paso Water Utility, December 20, 2018.
  13. Yselta del Sur Pueblo v. The City of El Paso and El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board, United States District Court, Western District, El Paso Division (EP-17-CV-00162-DCG), March 22, 2018.
  14. Joe Lucas, El Paso County Attorney, letter to Ronald D. Coleman, House of Representatives, March 9, 1988.
  15. Marcel Nicole Moreno, “Sustainable Wastewater Systems for Texas Colonias: Alternatives Analysis for El Paso County,” Applied Research Paper, Georgia Institute of Technology, School of City and Regional Planning, August 2017.
  16. Third Employment Extension Agreement for Edmund G. Archuleta, July 1, 2007.
  17. Vic Kolenc, “El Paso Water board breaks land-sale drought with pending $6.9M sale to homebuilder,” El Paso Times, March 19, 2019.
  18. Mike Mrkvicka, “PSB rejects Hunt’s bid to buy land,” El Paso, Inc., March 19, 2007.
  19. Brenda De Anda-Swann, “What’s the big deal? El Paso City Council sells land that was to Great Wolf site,” KVIA, March 2, 2021.

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