In West Texas, rural water managers struggle to track use for hydrofracking
Scarce as the water is in West Texas today, the people charged with protecting western counties’ long-term supply can’t say for sure where it’s all going — thanks in part to state law that prevents them from regulating it.
As the Texas Independent reported earlier this month, the severe drought comes at a bad time for the oil and gas industry, which has brought a resurgence to local economies in the last few years as horizontal hydraulic fracturing technology has turned deep shale formations into valuable natural gas plays.
In West Texas, advances in the technology have meant another chance to draw more from once-forgotten wells. In the heart of the oil-rich Permian Basin, Midland is bustling again — according to the latest jobs report, unemployment is well below the state average, at 5.1 percent — but as Kate Galbraith writes in Texas Monthly, water restrictions are turning the town as brown as the desert around it.
In a July meeting with residents in San Angelo, Leslie Savage, the Texas Railroad Commission’s chief geologist, suggested said the state and industry need to work on reducing water use as production grows.
“Frankly, in my opinion, it is not the well casing, it is not the hydraulic fracturing chemicals that are a problem in hydraulic fracturing,” Savage said, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times. “It is the use of water, particularly in drought.”
A Halliburton official at that meeting said 90 percent of the water they use is freshwater, because brackish water or other alternatives are still so much more expensive. Before this year’s drought, oil companies had plenty of options for buying that water in West Texas, from hydrants to ponds and reservoirs near drill sites.
Until the city cut them off recently, some oil companies had been getting water from city hydrants. The water wasn’t drinkable, but residents were still upset.
“There’s not any surface water,” the Permian Basin Petroleum Association’s Morris Burns told the Texas Independent. “Normally they’d buy surface water from stock tanks and ponds on their land. That’s not there anymore.”
Still, Burns said industry still uses far less than the millions of gallons pulled for city or agricultural use. Oil and gas producers use less than one percent of the water in the state, according to a recent report for the Texas Water Development Board. “An oil company drills a well only one time and they fracture a well only one time,” he said. “Although they use a lot of water, they only use it once.”
But groundwater managers say as surface water sources have dried up, it’s concentrated new demand on underground wells — and created a local spike in the amount of water that, by law, those districts can’t regulate.
It doesn’t mean trouble for in the state’s overall supply, but at the local level, for the folks planning an aquifer’s long-term future, it’s a huge wild card.
In the loose regulatory patchwork for water use in Texas — explained well in a recent New York Times/ClimateWire piece — groundwater conservation districts are the last line of local water defense for much of rural Texas. Born in the Texas Panhandle in the 1950s, at the tail end of what’s still the state’s worst drought on record, local groundwater conservation districts are created one at a time by the state Legislature, and confirmed by a local vote. There are about 100 of them in Texas today, and in West Texas, their tiny staffs cover some of the largest counties in the state.
Charged with crafting 50-year water plans for managing the aquifers they cover, districts can tax and even limit water drawn from underground — but the Texas Water Code provides an exemption for temporary water wells at active oil and gas rigs. (Small residential and agricultural wells are exempt, too.)
Ten years ago, a regulatory “Mafia” of West Texas groundwater managers — that’s the term at least a few of them use — worked to fine-tune that law to where it is today. Before 2001, water destined for oil and gas industry use was more broadly exempted, for major wells serving multiple operations, but Senate Bill 2 changed that.
“When we wrote the law, it accomplished what we thought was the problem,” said Rick Harston, who manages the Glasscock Groundwater Conservation District. “Back when we wrote the exemption law, we didn’t know about this new fracking technology. If we’d known, we might’ve tried to do a little more about it.”
Horizontal hydrofracking requires much more water than production methods common in West Texas back then.
“Oil companies say that’s been around forever. Well, it’s been around forever, but it hasn’t been the common practice,” said Harvey Everheart, who’s managed the Mesa Underground Water Conservation District since it was created in 1990.
His district covers Dawson County, where just a few oil wells are operating today. But in the north Texas Panhandle, for instance, Everheart said far more of the water is being drawn up unregulated.
“We’ve always bene under the impression that the water that’s exempt is not of significant quantities that it really makes that much difference,” Everheart said, but that may not be true anymore.
“We’re probably gonna have to start doing a lot more reporting, because — Hemphill County is a really good example. Probably 90 percent of the groundwater use is exempt,” he said, under the section of the law covering industry use.
“It’s a very important industry, but if they’re using all the water up, we need to try and make some regulatory changes.”
Slate Williams, general manager of the Crockett County Groundwater Conservation District in Ozona, said the new industry demand has been frustrating because it’s hard to know how much water companies have used.
Districts can require companies to report their water use — even from sources exempt from regulation — but Williams said in his district, that enforcing that would mean far more work than they can handle. It’s not required, Williams said, just a suggestion. Bigger operators like EOG, he said, are better about reporting their use to help him plan.
“When you get out here in West Texas, the counties are pretty big, and there’s a lot of use,” Williams said. “We’ve got one person that deals with that, and that’s me. I’m the janitor through CEO.”
“There’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” Williams said. “Texas is one of the only states that doesn’t regulate the water use with the oil and gas industry use at all.”
A law passed this year will make Texas one of the first states to require companies to disclose the chemicals in their fracking fluid, along with how much water they used. In West Texas, groundwater managers like Williams are hoping that self-reporting will answer their questions about water use. (Those reports will be available at FracFocus.org, where some companies already self-report.)
Even if it’s a small percentage of the water used around the state, in a district like Williams’ where the water runs through complex underground cave systems, one large drawdown can have a big effect. It doesn’t help that much of the water for industry use is stored in huge pits, often right beside dry land where ranchers are struggling.
“Nobody cares about their water until they don’t have any. Most people here in Crockett County, they love the oil and gas coming in. They don’t have any problem till they see this big pit and they say, wow, here’s 50 acre-foot.”
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword — because we want the oil production, but we need the freshwater. We have booms and busts all the time, but the water needs to stick around, and if we run out of our water, there’s no point in a lot of us being here.”
Williams said he’s thankful for the oil producers being in his district, and the opportunity they bring. “I just want them to be a little more courteous when it comes to things like groundwater, take care of the resources that they’re using.”
Since the district was created, up until recently, Williams said he’s seen small fluctuations in the water level underground, around a quarter of an inch. “Two months ago, it had dropped six foot. That’s pretty unusual,” he said.
If there’ll ever be greater regulation of the oil and gas industry out there, “It’ll be a change in the way things work,” Williams said. “It’ll take a lot of little people getting stepped on before anything gets done.”
Everheart, who’s been managing his district for more than 20 years, agrees.
“It’s comin’,” he said. “I can assure you with the increased water use thats going on in the oil patch, we’re looking at things differently. I just hope we can keep working with the oil and gas industry and keep these rules as easily enforceable as we can.”