Kenneth Bell’s childhood in West Texas taught him the value of water.
“I lived through the big drought of the 1950s,” said Bell, who split his time between his home in Odessa and family ranches in Menard, Fort McKavett and Fort Stockton. “It was a hellish time. People lost sheep and cattle to dehydration—and their land to the bank.”
The seven-year dry spell broke in the summer of 1957. The then-13-year-old happened to be in a pasture on the Menard ranch with one of his uncles when the life-giving rains began to fall.
What TWA has done in the realm of conservation education is, in my opinion, more effective and more important than just about any other organization out there. TWA helps people, whether they’re young or old, understand the value of our natural resources and the role that private land stewards play in taking care of them. Conservation doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when people care enough to put their passion into action on the land. —Kenneth Bell
“I’ll never forget,” Bell said. “My uncle sat right there in that pasture and cried.”
The scene instilled a lifelong appreciation for the priceless natural resource.
“A lot of people pay lip service to the importance of water, but you don’t really understand how precious it is until you’ve lived without it,” Bell said.
Decades of experience have shown Bell, who founded Quick Line Service Company’s Ranch Water Division in 1990, that the availability of fresh water dictates land’s productivity when it comes to livestock and wildlife.
“Where water is plentiful, people don’t think about it,” Bell, whose company has offices in Cotulla and Spring Branch, said. “Where water is scarce like it is in West Texas and South Texas, you have to have water in the far reaches of all of the pastures or the grass and habitat won’t be fully utilized.”
He continued, “Successfully growing animals means you have to successfully optimize all of the food sources. Animals don’t stay in areas where they can’t get water.”
The key to maximizing the land’s production potential is well-planned water transport and storage.
“Because of evaporation and drought, stock ponds aren’t a 100 percent reliable water source. In the old days, people put up storage—rock or concrete tanks—all over the place,” Bell said. “These days, at Quick Line, we install polyethylene-lined metal tanks along with polyethylene pipes designed to get water from point A to point B.”
From the oil patch to ranch roads
Quick Line Service’s Ranch Water Division grew out of QL Corp., an oilfield water service company that Bell and a group of investors purchased in 1981. Six months after the purchase, the bottom fell out of the oil market, and left the company relatively idle.
“It was a tough time, but it pointed out the need to diversify,” Bell, who had served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam, as a land appraiser and Vice President of Frost Bank’s Farm and Ranch Division before becoming an entrepreneur, said. “I know how to do what I know how to do—and that’s how to effectively move and store water.”
His ranching background as well as the time he spent on various ranches as a businessman, hunter and guest made the opportunity clear: he and his team would “put water where it isn’t” for landowners and land managers.
“From a business perspective, the ranch operation gave the company an additional income stream when the oil field slows down, which it always does,” Bell, who holds an ag business degree from Texas Tech, said. “From a personal perspective, the ranch operation is satisfying work that puts us in contact with good people who are trying to make a difference through good land management and conservation.”
Putting water where it isn’t
While each ranch is different, the Quick Line process is the same. It starts with a plan developed with the rancher.
“Some landowners have a complete plan in mind, while others just know they need more accessible water on their land,” Bell said. “As a company, we can provide as much or as little input as the landowner wants and needs.”
Generally, the process moves from plan to installation where the team either lays the line or buries it, depending on the landowner’s preference. The next step is creating storage and access by installing tanks, troughs or wildlife waterers.
“We do everything except dig the water wells,” Bell said, noting that a plan can be completed in total or in phases, depending on the landowner’s budget and timeline.
Through the years, Bell has tried every type of pipe on the market. Experience has proven that polyethylene is far superior to metal, PVC and the “black pipe that old-timers remember not-so fondly from the 1950s.”
Polyethylene pipe comes in a variety of sizes. Most ranch applications fall in the range of 1.25-inch to 4-inch diameter pipe, although Bell and his team have used as large as 12-inch. It is virtually indestructible. Unlike other products, it’s not affected by cold and won’t burst when it freezes unless temperatures drop to -40°F or below. It doesn’t get brittle in the sun or rust. When the line is buried, the product that Bell installs is unconditionally guaranteed for 50 years.
The pipe is installed in 2,000 foot lengths and joined with heat fusion.
“Our product gives you maximum flexibility with a minimal number of joints, which historically have been the weak points in piping,” Bell said. “Because of the nature of the materials and the heat fusion process, the polyethylene pipe is theoretically as strong at the joints as it is along its length—as long as it’s fused properly.”
The company also installs polyethylene-lined water tanks and polyethylene pond liners.
“Our goals are to maximize water availability and minimize water loss,” Bell said. “Polyethylene products help us achieve those goals.”
On the ground results
Bell estimates that the company has laid hundreds of miles of poly pipe through the years.
“We offer a practical solution for what is one of many landowners’ biggest challenges,” Bell said, noting the majority of the company’s projects are in South Texas and West Texas. “We will tackle any project regardless of size. Nothing is too small—or too large.”
Recently, the team installed 65 miles of two-inch pipe and 62 troughs on a ranch south of Marfa.
“We tied into the wells. Then, we pumped the water to a reservoir at a higher elevation and used gravity flow to distribute it throughout the ranch,” Bell said.
On another ranch south of Carrizo Springs that has operated since the 1800s, the company installed 10 storage tanks with capacities ranging from 50,000 gallons to 65,000 gallons apiece to supply the needs for a mixed livestock and wildlife operation.
A ranch, located south of Alpine, needed 250,000 feet of pipe run over the top of mesas and down into valleys to supply its quail/wildlife waterers. The project has been implemented in phases over the past six years. The ranch manager recently showed Bell the results of their work.
On the tour, the duo flushed a covey about every 150 yards. When Bell expressed his delight, the ranch manager told him to wait until they got to the bottom of Cartwright Canyon.
“We flushed a covey that had about 150 birds,” Bell said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
It demonstrated what quail managers have long told him.
“To have a good quail crop, you need three things: water, water and water,” Bell said.
Seeing the land’s bounty also served as a reminder of why this business means much more than a mere bottom line.
“It’s rewarding to ‘put water where it isn’t—and see what Mother Nature and land managers do with the opportunity,” Bell said.
Legacy of the land
Looking back over his life, Kenneth Bell recognizes that the land and the people who cared for it have shaped his life from the beginning.
“I grew up in a wonderful time and a wonderful way in West Texas. I was fortunate. Our family was solidly middle class. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t just throw money around either. My dad worked in the oilfield and my mom was a teacher. My parents and my ranching uncles were all college educated. School was important.
I grew up in Odessa, but spent weekends, holidays and all my summers on the family’s ranches. Some of my earliest memories are being on horseback and helping move stock. I was probably 4 or 5. We had a job to do.
When we were done, my cousins and I would swim in tanks, play tag on horseback chasing each other through the arroyos. The Fort Stockton place was 120 sections and as kids we would have sworn we rode over every acre. Looking back, though, I figure we maybe covered the same 5,000 acres over and over.
While I spent time in Fort Stockton, I spent most of my time on the ranches in Fort McKavett and Menard. That uncle was my mother’s brother. His nickname for me was ‘Rat Bastard.’ It was a term of endearment. (I think.) We were really close.
My uncle ran sheep and cattle on the place at Menard. On the Fort McKavett ranch, he couldn’t run sheep because of bitterweed, which poisoned them, so he ran Angora goats instead. By the time I was 14 and my cousin was 10, we’d stay out at Fort McKavett by ourselves. Our main jobs were doctoring screw worms, fixing water gaps—in the rare cases it rained—and scrubbing out the water troughs so the water was clean.
The goats were sheared in August and mohair was a big cash crop. It was important that they had plenty of clean water to drink because clean water caused them to purge the lanolin, the grease, from their hair. The less grease that was in their hair, the less dirt and trash it attracted. Dirty hair took a big price hit, so cleaner was better.
We’d ride all day and come home for lunch. We’d loosen the horses’ girths, take off their bridles and let them graze in the yard, while we ate. There were no adults around. We had to learn to think for ourselves.
When we were done for the day, we bathed in a water tank. We pulled the truck up close and jumped in from the cab—naked as jaybirds. When we were finished, we’d drive back hunting jack rabbits all along the way.
Most kids now don’t have that kind of freedom. They’re not going to have those kinds of memories—and learn those inherent lessons of the land.
I still have a ranch between Menard and London. It’s where we take our three kids, their spouses and our seven grandkids now. It means a lot to be able to pass those experiences along. Of course, they’re different than mine were, but they’re still valuable. In today’s world, they’re rare. It’s a blessing that my family has those roots and that chance.”