“If you’re going to develop the oil, you’ve got to have the water,” said Larry Baxter, a contractor from the nearby town of Mertzon, who installed two frack tanks on his land earlier this year, hoping to make a business out of his well selling water to the oil industry.
By his own estimate, his well could produce enough to fill 20 or 30 water trucks each day. At US$60 a truck, that was US$36,000 a month, easily.
“I could sell 100 truckloads a day if I was open to it,” Baxter said.
He rejected the idea there should be any curbs on selling water during the drought.
“People use their water for food and fiber. I choose to use my water to sell to the oil field,” he said. “Who’s taking advantage? I don’t see any difference.”
Barnhart remained dry for five days last month before a local work crew revived an abandoned railway well and started pumping again. Residents fear it is just a temporary fix and, next time it happens, they won’t have their own wells to fall back on.
“My well is very very close to going dry,” Kuykendall said.
So what is a town like Barnhart to do? Fracking is a powerful drain on water supplies. In adjacent Crockett county, fracking accounts for up to 25 percent of water use, according to the groundwater conservation district.
In Lubbock, Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe said fracking is not the only reason Texas is going dry — and nor is the drought. The latest shocks to the water system come after decades of overuse by ranchers, cotton farmers, and thirsty, fast-growing cities.
“We have large urban centers sucking water out of west Texas to put on their lands. We have a huge agricultural community, and now we have fracking which is also using water,” she said.
And then there is climate change.
West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but, under climate change, the southwest has been experiencing recordbreaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Aquifers have failed to regenerate.
“What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the camel is already overloaded,” Hayhoe said.
Other communities across the bone dry southwest are resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the water flowing. Robert Lee, also in the oil patch, has been hauling in water by tanker. So has Spicewood Beach, a resort town 65km from Austin, which has been trucking in water since early last year.
San Angelo, a city of 100,000, dug a pipeline to an underground water source more than 95km away, and sunk half a dozen new wells.
Las Cruces, just across the border from the Texas panhandle in New Mexico, is drilling down 300m in search of water.
Those fixes are way out of reach for small, rural communities. Outside the carparks for the oil field workers who are just passing through, Barnhart has a population of about 200 people.
“We barely make enough money to pay our light bill and we’re supposed to find [US]$300,000 to drill a water well?” said John Nanny, an official with the town’s water supply company.