In the Texas Panhandle, one county finds more than half its water use goes to oil and gas

Posted on: September 22nd, 2011 by Patrick Michels No Comments

Image by: Matt MahurinThe oil and gas industry’s water needs may be just a sliver of all the water use across Texas — less than one percent, according to one recent study — but that’s a different story in Hemphill County, in the far northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle.

The state’s two biggest water draws, agriculture and municipal water use, don’t account for much of the use there, where there hasn’t been much irrigated farming in a long time, and just 2,600 people live in Canadian, the county’s only town.

That leaves the oil and gas industry, which accounted for more than half of the county’s water use in 2010, according to estimates by the Hemphill County Underground Water Conservation District.

The district is responsible for the county’s long-term water planning, and it made that estimate earlier this year because it has no other way to tell how much water the industry used. Under Texas law, local regulators can’t issue permits for oil and gas industry wells or limit their use. While they can make requirements for companies to report how much water they’re using, most don’t.

Before the spread of modern combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — a process that takes far more water than traditional drilling — that water use wasn’t much of an issue. That’s changed now, and the drought has compounded the strain on groundwater districts by drying up surface ponds companies used to pull from.

Now, the Texas Railroad Commission’s chief geologist has said the amount of water used for fracking is a problem that will likely lead to new regulations, and as the Texas Independent has reported, districts trying to get a handle on just how much water is going to the industry.

A study for the Texas Water Development Board released in February found that few groundwater conservation districts in the state even estimate how much water is being used for mineral production, and of the 45 that responded to the researchers’ survey, “none of the districts monitored actual water use.”

Thanks to unique conditions in the Texas Panhandle, though, groundwater managers there have gotten a head start on the rest of the state. Conservationists have rallied around a fight to keep T. Boone Pickens from selling Panhandle groundwater to cities like Dallas, and local groundwater district boards have been particularly aggressive in enforcing the regulations they make.

Hemphill County UWCD director Janet Guthrie said the 5,000 people living in her district are beginning to realize the current drawdown is different from the old industry cycles they’d been used to, which had a way of fizzling after a few years. “They’ve been through previous booms and busts — but this has been going on for 10 years,” Guthrie said. “This is the new normal.”

In response, Guthrie’s is one of a few Panhandle districts that are preparing rules that will require oil and gas producers to report their water use from exempt wells. Guthrie and her two-person staff may not be able to regulate the water, but at least they’ll have a better sense for how much is being used while they plan for the long-term future of their water supply.

‘It can only reach a certain level of chaos’

In the 1970s, Janet Guthrie remembers the water level in Hemphill County, in the far northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle, was as low as it’s ever been.

Back then, the combination of irrigated farming and another oil and gas boom was straining the county’s corner of the Ogallala aquifer. The boom was short-lived, though, and farmers soon gave up trying to irrigate the sandy earth. Gradually, the water level recovered.

While the monstrous Ogallala doesn’t refill with rainfall like some groundwater sources, Guthrie said it does have a way of migrating back into the pockets that reach into Hemphill County, roughly following the west-to-east path of U.S. Route 60 above.

“By 2000 we had recovered all of that. The boom started with the aquifer full as we’ve ever seen it.”

“Every trailer is taken, every rent house is filled with crews. That’s kinda the good news, It can only reach a certain level of chaos,” Guthrie said. “But not for the water level issues — because of the drought.”

The increase in the number of drilling permits in Hemphill County, from 77 in 1999 to a peak of 347 in 2008, got Guthrie and her staff interested in taking a closer look at the industry’s water wells, she said. But it’s complaints from landowners that finally got them studying the question.

“When people have always been told that they have water for hundreds of years, but all of a sudden a well goes dry,” Guthrie said, “it’s just not something they thought they’d live to see.”

Companies generally cooperate with the local regulators, Guthrie said, but that doesn’t always extend to the workers on the ground. “The crews that come in, they have their orders,” Guthrie said. The water issues brought to those guys are above their pay scale.”

Melvin Walser, who sits on the conservation district’s board, has seen that on his own land. He and his brother have each leased to a handful of operators over the years, and Walser said he’s learned to watch where the water’s going.

“When they first started drilling on us, they’d put in a pump, they’d turn that pump on. It’d be there something like 25 days, they’d pump it 24 hours a day whether they needed it or not,” he said. Some nights, the pumps stayed on, letting water overflow onto the ground. “We got to fussin’ at ‘em and it didn’t seem to do any good.”

‘It’s the inequities’

Starting in 2007, Hemphill County UWCD began calculating how much water the oil and industry was using, tracking the number and type of wells in the Texas Railroad Commission database, and asking companies how much water each type of drilling operation requires.

That first year, Guthrie said, they came up with a total of 275 acre-feet, or 89.6 million gallons. By now, she said, industry averages 6,701 acre-feet per year — 2.2 billion gallons.

Total water use for the county, by the district’s estimates, is 12,000 acre-feet each year, so somewhere around 56 percent of the water they’re responsible for is going to industry. But if wells are overflowing, or the estimates are off, nobody’s really counting.

It’s not much next to the 140,000 acre-feet Texas is estimated to use each year, or the 10 million acre-feet that go to agriculture, according to TWDB figures. But to this one county, where drawdowns at the edge of the Ogallala aquifer can cause streams to reroute and wells to run dry, 6,701 acre-feet of freshwater can mean a lot.

“We’re not talking about all of the water in the state of Texas. It is a local issue,” Guthrie said. “I understand what they’re saying — it’s short-term use at this particular location, but this short-term use has been going on for 10 years, and their use has been increasing.”

Guthrie said she’s grateful for the industry in a lot of ways. “You’re talking about your neighbor’s job, or your husband’s job or your son’s job,” she said. But under Texas’ water planning system, each district is responsible for setting, and then hitting, its own long-term conservation targets. The industry’s unregulated water supply means Guthrie has to tighten regulations on everyone else.

“To give one industry the superior right to deplete the aquifer over another industry doesn’t seem fair,’” she said. “It’s the inequities of it. It puts you, as a regulator, in a position to say, ‘You’ve got me, I don’t have a good answer for that, except that it’s the law.’”

Enforcement adds an extra burden

It’ll take about a year to finish the reporting rules, Guthrie said. Not long after that, Texas’ new fracking chemical disclosure law wil also require companies to list the amount of water they use for each well online.

There are already meters on the wells, so operators know precisely how much water is in their pits, Guthrie said. Her staff’s biggest challenge will be making sure they get those reports.

“It’s definitely going to lead to districts having to administratively take up the issue of enforcement,” she said. “My board has been very clear to me — we will exercise our authority to require them to report their use.”

“I am concerned with the burden that reporting will place on my staff,” she said. “It’s gonna require us to be in the field a lot more, and who likes to be that guy? It’s like being the dogcatcher.”

“It’s very difficult to permit a non-exempt producer when right next to him is a well of equal or greater volumes, and they don’t have to do anything,” Guthrie said. “It’s putting a strain on it. It’s making it difficult for us to do our jobs.”

Melvin Walser and other Hemphill County water officials say they support water recycling efforts, or alternatives to freshwater — brackish water pulled from below the Ogallala, for instance, or petroleum-based substitutes. For now, though, there’s nothing cheaper than freshwater.

“Even though we own those water rights, and are supposedly free to do with them what we want, we’re not,” Walser said. “We’ve got to be good stewards for that water.”

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