October 31, 2019
Courthouse News Service | By Travis Bubenik
Most summers in far west Texas, the small farming community of Balmorhea transforms into a tourist hot spot as travelers flock across the sprawling Chihuahuan Desert to one of the state’s most beloved spring-fed swimming holes. But in 2018, the summer season was canceled.
That was the year erosion damage was discovered inside the pool at Balmorhea State Park, forcing a months-long closure that frustrated visitors and locals alike. Though the pool reopened in time for summer this year, the entire park soon closed again so its outdated septic system could be fixed.
The open-and-closed-again saga in Balmorhea has become something of a case study in what happens when parks are left with inadequate funding and problems pile up.
Outdoors advocates say it’s a situation that could be avoided in the future, if Texas voters on Tuesday approve a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ensure a more reliable funding stream for parks.
“This park, because of deferred maintenance, it really has gone for a very long time and just limped along,” Carolyn Rose, superintendent of the Balmorhea Park, said in an interview.
The parks system in Texas has become straddled with an estimated $800 million maintenance backlog, due largely to the way lawmakers have chosen to allocate funding.
Under state law, tax revenue from sporting goods sales is supposed to be sent to the parks department and the state historical commission. But through the years, lawmakers have directed only a portion of that revenue to those entities, using the rest for other purposes.
Complicating matters further, the allocated amounts have fluctuated from one legislative session to the next.
“You might think, ‘OK, this next year we’re going to work on this particular project,’ and then, ‘Oh, no, we didn’t get the funding,’” Rose said.
In Balmorhea, the park closures have been more than just an inconvenience.
Even as oil drilling has rapidly expanded around the town in recent years, some businesses still rely on the tourist dollars the pool attracts.
At El Oso Flojo (Lazy Bear) Lodge in Balmorhea, owner Joel Madrid said he’s hoping to add new rock landscaping around the irrigation canal that runs in front of the lodge, carrying the same spring water that feeds the pool.
Children play in the canals, he said, so he wants to make them safer. But the park closures have hurt his bottom line, even in the off-season.
“We’ve had [scuba] divers here when it’s been snowing,” Madrid said. “It definitely has taken a toll on us.”
While the lodge fills with oilfield workers during the week, Madrid still depends on tourists coming in for the weekends.
“The pool’s going to carry us,” he said. “It’ll be there when the oilfield is long gone.”
The proposal on the Tuesday ballot could help ensure a more stable future for the Balmorhea pool and parks like it.
Proposition 5 would mandate that sporting goods tax revenue be dedicated to parks and historic sites, though lawmakers could still decide to move the money elsewhere with a two-thirds vote of both legislative houses.
The proposal hasn’t drawn much pushback in Republican-controlled Texas. Two Republican lawmakers sponsored bills that led to the amendment being placed on the ballot. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also supports for the idea.
“There’s got to be a consistency, not just an increase in funding, but a consistency in funding,” said George Bristol, a longtime Texas political operative and parks advocate who supports the proposition.
“We’ve literally had a year where we got $25-30 million in maintenance money, and the next year we got zero,” he said. “That’s no way to run anything.”
Rose, the Balmorhea superintendent, said a more reliable funding stream would allow her to tackle repairs sooner, before they become a major headache, and to think about the park’s longer-term needs.
“I feel like it will keep what happened before from happening again,” she said.