Water for oil denies water to people

The Texas fracking boom sucks away precious water from beneath the ground, leaving cattle dead, farms bone dry and people thirsty

By Suzanne Goldenberg  /  The Guardian, BARNHART, Texas

Thu, Aug 15, 2013 - Page 9

Beverly McGuire saw the warning signs before the town’s well went dry: sand in the toilet bowl, the sputter of air in the tap and a pump working overtime to no effect. It still did not prepare her for the night last month when she turned on the tap and discovered the tiny town where she had made her home for 35 years was out of water.

“The day that we ran out of water I turned on my faucet and nothing was there and at that moment I knew the whole of Barnhart was down the tubes,” she said, blinking back tears. “I went: ‘Dear God, help us.’ That was the first thought that came to mind.”

Across the southwest, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.

Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and aquifers. Climate change is making things worse.

In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools. In Barnhart’s case, the well appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.

The town — a gas station, a community hall and a taco truck — sits in the midst of the great Texan oil rush, on the eastern edge of the Permian Basin.

A few years ago, it seemed like a place on the way out. Now, McGuire says she can see nine oil wells from her back porch, and there are dozens of recreational vehicles parked outside town, full of oil workers.

However, soon after the first frack trucks pulled up two years ago, the well on McGuire’s property ran dry.

Nobody in Barnhart paid much attention at the time, and McGuire hooked up to the town’s central water supply.

“Everyone just said: ‘too bad.’ Well now it’s all going dry,” McGuire said.

Ranchers dumped most of their herds. Cotton farmers lost up to half their crops. The extra draw down, coupled with drought, made it impossible for local ranchers to feed and water their herds, Buck Owens said.

In a good year, Owens used to run 500 cattle and up to 8,000 goats on his 7,689 leased hectares. Now he is down to a few hundred goats.

The drought undoubtedly took its toll, but Owens reserved his anger for the contractors who drilled 104 water wells on his leased land to supply the oil companies.

Water levels were dropping in his wells because of the vast amounts being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity Plateau Aquifer, an 88,060km2 water-bearing formation.

“They are sucking all of the water out of the ground, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of water trucks here every day bringing fresh water out of the wells,” Owens said.

Meanwhile, residents in town complained, they were forced to live under water rationing.

“I’ve got dead trees in my yard because I haven’t been able to water them,” Glenda Kuykendall said. “The state is mandating our water system to conserve water, but why? Getting one oil well fracked takes more water than the entire town can drink or use in a day.”

Even as the drought bore down, even as the water levels declined, the oil industry continued to demand water and those with water on their land were willing to sell it. The road west of town was lined with signs advertising “fresh water,” where tankers can take on a boxcar-sized load of water laced with industrial chemicals.

“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.

Last week brought some relief with rain across the entire state of Texas. Rain gauges in some parts of west Texas registered 5cm or more. Some ranchers dared to hope it was the beginning of the end of the drought.

Not Owens. Not yet anyway. The aquifers needed far more rain to recharge, he said, and it just wasn’t raining as hard as it did when he was growing up.

“We’ve got to get floods. We’ve got to get a hurricane to move up in our country and just saturate everything to replenish the aquifer,” he said. “Because when the water is gone. That’s it. We’re gone.”