Frackers Guzzle Water as Texas Goes Thirsty

Rain has been scarce in South Texas, where the oil and gas boom is depleting precious aquifers

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Christopher Sherman / AP

Farmers in South Texas are struggling with uneven crops and some that never emerged as the Rio Grande Valley suffers through its driest stretch ever recorded.

In summer, the bison on Thunderheart Ranch opt for the feathery shade of a mesquite tree as temperatures reach 100. This land, just a handful of miles from the Mexican border, was once known as The Wild Horse Desert, lawless, rough brush country where, in a good year, 21 inches of rain fell and in a bad year, less than a dozen descended from the clouds. “My grandfather used to say we get two 10-inch rains and never get the other inch,” says Hugh Fitzsimmons, owner of the 13,000-acre ranch.

Fitzsimmons hails from an old Dimmit County family that has several large holdings in the area 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. He also serves on the local Wintergarden Groundwater District and spends a good deal of his time worrying about the falling water levels in the underground aquifer that serves the sparsely populated county.

Even as fall officially begins in Texas and temperatures dip into the low nineties, 97% of the state is suffering from an extended drought that is pitting neighbor against neighbor in a battle over water. Lakeside restaurants are closed, boat docks stand high and dry, farmers are at odds with suburban gardeners, and small town wells are depleted. In the state’s booming Oil Patch, the earth is cracked and the grass is brittle, but water is still gushing to hundreds of hydraulic fracturing operations. It’s water in, energy and dollars out at a gold-rush pace that some say cannot continue.

(MORE: As Obama Visits Upstate New York, the Fracking Debate Takes Center Stage)

Similar fights could soon happen almost anyplace where fracking operations are growing and water is scarce. Fracking giant Schlumberger estimates there will be a million new wells drilled around the world in the next 20 years. The fracking process pumps large amounts of pressurized water deep into the earth to dislodge oil and gas deposits. The amount of water needed varies, depending on the geology of the formation, but the average South Texas well takes some four to six million gallons of water over a period of several days as the rock formations are fractured, according to an industry source.

Fracking companies point out that their industry consumes only 1% of all the fresh water usage in Texas, less than suburbia or agriculture. But drilling is using up water in some of the state’s driest areas, like Dimmit County. “We have a ticking time bomb,” Fitzsimmons says. Given the falling levels of the aquifer, it would take “a flood of Biblical proportions,” he says, to recharge the county’s water reserves.

Drillers working the Eagle Shale Formation in South Texas use approximately 15,000 acre-feet (nearly 4.9 billion gallons) of water annually — about half the annual recharge in normal years — from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer under Dimmit and its neighboring counties, according to the Southwest Research Institute, the non-profit, San Antonio-based research and development organization. To put that in perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average U.S. household uses about 100,000 gallons of water a year.

That voracious thirst has caused tensions with locals like Fitzsimmons. He says he’s seen the water level in a well on his own property fall by two-thirds in the last three years and longtime water well drillers are now digging down two or three hundred feet where once a shallower hole would suffice.

Dimmit County is no stranger to drought. In the mid-1800s, early settlers arrived to an area they described as a “poor man’s heaven,” where springs bubbling up into streams were home to “giant catfish, crawfish and mussels.” The local groundwater board takes its name from the “Winter Garden” label given to the area in the early 1900s when irrigation and ample rainfall led to a boom in farming. But drought struck in the late 1920s, when the springs dried up from over-use, and again in the 1950s. The Wild Horse desert and cattle ranches took back much of the land.

(MORE: The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside)

Oil and gas exploration began in the second half of the 20th Century, but it didn’t explode until the recent fracking boom. In 2009, there were just 107 oil and gas wells in Dimmit County. By 2012, there were 2,137, and what Fitzsimmons says was a “firehose of money” in wages, royalties and tax revenue. Last year, sales tax receipts were up 87% in Dimmit, and triple digits in neighboring counties. Landowners benefitted from income generated by old mineral rights leases, some of which, like those on Fitzsimmons’ family land, dated back to decades earlier when drilling was a less water-intensive operation.

“It is not the process that I object to,” says Fitzsimmons, “but it’s all the ancillary issues that come with it. Air quality declines as some wells flare off gases, and heavyweight rigs and water-hauling trucks destroy back-country roads. But most of all, locals want the frackers to use less water.”

About two-thirds of the water used in a fracking operation remains underground after drilling. The remaining third that comes back to the surface has to be removed from the site and treated if it is to be used elsewhere. Often it’s fed into a disposal well. Some states, including Colorado, require recycling of all fracking water ejected from the well. Texas has added incentives to encourage drillers to recycle, but does not mandate it.

The oil and gas industry is moving “very quickly” to develop recycling and other injection options, according to David Burnett, director of technology at Texas A&M’s Global Petroleum Research Institute. Recycling trucks are now wending their way down caliche country roads in Dimmit County and elsewhere. Scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio are investigating charcoal as a potential water treatment solution for so-called backflow water, the brackish underground water that is sometimes pulled up during the drilling process.

Another solution would be to tap the 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish water that lies beneath Texas. Salts and chemicals in the water that are incompatible with the fracking process can be removed, according to Burnett, whose research involves using membranes to treat water. Halliburton, a major player in the fracking industry, is aiming to reduce fresh water use by 25% in the U.S. by the end of 2014, according to industry reports. Reducing freshwater use “is no longer just an environmental issue — it has to be an issue of strategic importance,” Salvador Ayala, vice president of well production services told an industry group recently, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In Texas, the fresh water infrastructure is growing. There are now 44 inland desalination plants in the state and 10 more, including one just south of San Antonio, have been approved for construction. Earlier this year, the state legislature put a $2 billion water infrastructure measure on this fall’s ballot. But as Fitzsimmons says, “You are not going to build your way out of this problem. We need to conserve and recycle.”

They also need rain. Cowboys, farmers, and now oilmen are looking east, hoping a slow moving tropical depression will come ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, and southwest, praying for a Pacific hurricane to move over the Sierra Madre in Mexico. South Texas is thirsty.

MORE: Why the U.S. Fracking Industry Worries About the Weather in India

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