AUG. 29, 2012


Tom B. Saunders’ family has been ranching for five generations. Surface tanks and wells provide water for the cattle and horses on the Twin V Ranch near Weatherford. He’s got a couple of gas wells on the land too, and he’s not at all opposed to the drillers.

But he’d sure be opposed to selling any of his groundwater to them these days, as he did a few years ago.

“Right now, I’d say, ‘Boys, pray for rain and wait ’til it does. Because I’m not going to sell you any water. My livestock comes first.’ ”

Across much of the West and Southwest, farmers, ranchers, other landowners, and water authorities are having to make those same sorts of calculations. In a growing number of counties in Texas, as well as in big stretches of Colorado and other states, drillers are a growing force in the water market.

In some Texas counties, according to a report from the Texas Water Development Board, the drilling industry now uses more water than farmers and ranchers. In Montague County northwest of Fort Worth, noted Hugh MacMillan of the nonprofit environmental group Food & Water Watch, the state water board “anticipates that the gas industry will use … more than twice what is expected to be used for irrigation and livestock” and almost as much as municipal users. In Stephens County, “drilling and fracking the Barnett Shale is expected to consume more than three times the consumption for irrigation and livestock.”

In Colorado recently, when a major water district held an auction of “surplus” water diverted from the Colorado River, haulers supplying the drilling industry outbid farmers and ranchers. When ranchers and farmers can buy water, it will be more expensive — not only because of competition from gas drillers, of course, but because of continuing drought, shrinking reservoirs, growing populations, and dropping groundwater levels in many parts of the country.


Mace: “As you get down to the local level, (water use by gas drillers) becomes more of an issue.” Courtesy Robert Mace

“Really, we have plenty of water in Texas, but the days of cheap water, of easy to develop water, are gone,” said Ron Kaiser, professor of water law and policy at Texas A&M University. Although groundwater supplies of fresh water are dwindling — alarmingly, in some places — there are “huge amounts of brackish groundwater” under Texas he said. That water is far too salty to drink, “but we have the technology to make it very [drinkable],” he said.

Who can afford that technology? Cities, probably, he said, by raising rates. But “agriculture can’t pay those prices.”

Questions about the effect of widespread shale gas development, using millions of gallons of water per well, on water supplies aren’t confined to Colorado or a few counties in Texas. Nationally and internationally, environmental and water rights groups are beginning to raise concerns. In September, activists in several countries are planning a “Global Frackdown” event to draw attention to those and other problems they see with shale gas drilling.

A national poll by the Civil Society Institute, released a few weeks ago, found that three out of four Americans — including 61 percent of Republicans — are worried about shortages of clean water, want federal action to address increased drought, and have made the connection between energy industries and water usage.

Heather White, general counsel for the Environmental Working Group, which has worked with the Civil Society Institute on many projects, said that water quantity and quality are the “number-one environmental issue” for people in this country.

Even in states like Texas and Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry is so powerful, she said, people are starting to question the exemptions for those industries from so many laws that other businesses must follow and that affect water supplies.

“Americans are waking up,” White said. “It’s Washington that’s out of step.”


In the broad picture, hydraulic fracturing as part of gas drilling accounts for less than one percent of water usage across Texas.

The problem is that water isn’t distributed evenly across the state — it’s a very local proposition.

“As you get down to the local level, [water use by gas drillers] becomes more of an issue,” said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for science and conservation at the Texas Water Development Board.

The agency, which underwrites water development projects for local government bodies, doesn’t take any position on the use of Texas’ water by gas drillers. Board officials know the issue is out there, but they haven’t tried to track the conflicts. In Texas, water politics are always about who has it and who doesn’t, and the fights historically have been fierce. With much of Texas — and more than half the counties in the country — in drought status, the battles will only get bloodier.

The drought hasn’t been as severe in 2012 as it was last year — the state’s worst drought ever recorded — but it hasn’t gone away. Texas is like the proverbial frog in the pot, Mace said: “The heat has been turned down from high to medium” — but the implication is that the state’s water resources are still getting cooked.

In a presentation he made this week, Mace noted that the state definitely is not prepared for a “drought of record,” like the one that lingered on in Texas in the 1950s.

Even in the big picture, the impact of shale gas drilling is being felt. According to a recent report by two University of Texas researchers with the Bureau of Economic Geology, drilling in dry areas of the state could contribute to lowering groundwater levels and reducing some stream flows. They estimated that net water usage for fracking in Texas could roughly triple by 2030 and then decline.

But the big picture “obscures water conflicts at the county level,” said MacMillan, the researcher with Food & Water Watch. (The nonprofit promotes development of safe, sustainable water supplies.) According to the Texas studies, he said, fracking usage is expected to outstrip agricultural use in some counties. And with much of the countryside still in the grip of a major drought that’s not expected to fade anytime soon, that could set up real conflicts.

Theoretically, Texas’ groundwater conservation districts have the power to regulate who gets to pull water. In practice, Texans’ strong tradition of private property rights makes that tough. A major court decision earlier this year, involving the Edwards Aquifer, narrowly limited — but did not deny — the government’s ability to regulate groundwater extraction.

That power may be put to the test again, over the question of limiting groundwater use by gas drillers. While the oil and gas industry is exempted from many water-use regulations, observers believe there’s a chance that the drillers may still be subject to some regulation. That could get tested first in South Texas, where the Eagle Ford shale drilling play is occurring in an area where groundwater levels, mostly in the Carrizo Wilcox aquifer, have been dropping significantly. Although most of the drop is due to irrigation and cities’ water usage, fracking is also a factor.

Kaiser, the A&M professor, said that although fracking’s effect statewide is “pretty small,” in drier areas, gas well activity could indeed be a factor in lowering water tables and making water wells go dry.

The parts of the state that are the most at risk, he said, are the small cities west of I-35. Bigger cities have gone out and acquired water supplies, he said, and some, like El Paso, have built desalinization plants. But in some parts of West Texas, the Ogallala Aquifer has been pumped so low that farmers can no longer afford to drill deep enough to use it, and “little cities are really scrambling.”

Tom Saunders, the Parker County rancher, isn’t in favor of much intervention by government to regulate things like who gets the water. But he has seen the problem developing.

There’s not much drilling going on his home ranch right now, or in Jack County, where the family leases more land. But when the shale gas play was more active (because gas prices were higher), gas drillers were “sucking the [surface water] tanks dry” on the Jack County land, he said, where the water-use decisions weren’t up to him.

“They were paying us for it, but if it didn’t rain, we were short of stock water,” he said. Finally, he said, he talked the gas drillers into sinking their own water well so they’d quit using his stock water — which worked until they burned up their water pump.

“The underground water is going to be very critical, a crucial thing one of these days, because usage is getting bigger with the population,” he said. “These aquifers are just dropping.” Two of his seven windmill-pumped wells went completely dry during the worst of the drought last year, he said. He had to redrill them about 70 feet deeper to hit good water. But he uses that underground water as little as possible, he said.

The Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District includes Parker and Montague plus Hood and Wise counties. According to records from the district, between 2009 and 2011 groundwater use by the oil and gas industry quadrupled in Montague and substantially increased in the other three counties. But in Montague, water usage by the oil and gas industry, in each of the three years covered, was 10 times that of public water systems.

Jillian McDonald, public relations coordinator for the conservation district, said officials are in the process of gathering information on 108 water wells across the Upper Trinity, in order to better gauge in the future what is happening to groundwater levels, which have been steadily declining. She said the state sets criteria for how far apart water wells must be and how far from property lines. Gas well companies are treated no differently than other water users, she said.

McDonald said the district strongly encourages water conservation.

Saunders is all for that.

He wishes others would plan more for the long run. When a new neighbor drilled several water wells and put a surface tank at each well, he said, he explained to the man how much water he was going to lose to evaporation. “I said, man, you’re not only using what’s under your land but what’s under everybody else’s as well.”

Saunders said more people should install cisterns to collect rainwater off their roofs. “It’s the purest water you can get,” he said.


In Colorado, activists bared it all to express support for their beloved river, which they believe is threatened in part by gas drillers’ need for water. Photo Courtesy New Belgium Brewing

As with so many other controversies involving shale gas, many Texans feel like they’re at the center of the drilling, but — despite the exertions of Barnett Shale activists — nowhere near the center of efforts to examine, critique, and possibly change that industry.

It was in places like New York and Pennsylvania that fracking’s threats to water quality first drew national attention several years ago. And now the competition for water between drillers and other users in Colorado is drawing more attention to that dilemma.

Gary Wockner, director of a group called the Save the Poudre Coalition, has been watching the fracking water usage with concern. His group’s mission is to protect the Cache la Poudre River.

He noted the auction this year in which water haulers serving gas drillers outbid farmers and ranchers for water diverted by a conservancy district from the Colorado River.

The Northern Water Conservancy District, Wockner said, is proposing to divert 60 percent of the water from the Cache la Poudre into a massive “off-channel” reservoir. The district says it needs the water to serve future population growth, Wockner said, “but we see it as a bait-and-switch” because the cities that will buy the water are also planning to sell a lot of it to drillers.

The plan would destroy wildlife and habitat, he said, and also wreck the significant part of the region’s economy based on recreation on that river — fishing, kayaking, rafting, and the like. “The rivers are already in terrible shape this year because of the drought,” he said. The Cache la Poudre flows through the city of Fort Collins, which, with the county and state, has spent millions of dollars protecting open space along the river, building bike paths, and maintaining a natural corridor. “If you drain the river, you really destroy [that] investment,” he said.

And just like in Texas, Wockner said, the available water in Colorado “has already been allotted and counted for. If new users come in, they take water away from someone else — primarily from the farmers and from the rivers.”

Wockner: “If new users come in, they take water away from someone else.”

Wockner also pointed out a report released in June by a conservation group called Western Resource Advocates, providing new data on the volume of water actually being used by shale gas development. In the study, based on information from Colorado, researchers concluded that estimates of water used in fracking vary widely, but that just in that one state, the industry uses enough water to serve a small city each year.

In fact, the debate over fracking and aquifer depletion has become international. In an article that appeared a few weeks ago in Nature magazine, scientists introduced a new system for better estimating groundwater reserves. And they warned that almost a quarter of the world’s people live in areas where aquifers are being depleted. Those areas include most of the world’s key farming regions — including the High Plains of the United States, where levels of the huge Ogallala aquifer have been shrinking for decades.

Wenonah Hauter, of Food & Water Watch, said the overuse of scarce water supplies by the energy industry was really driven home for her earlier this year at the first Global Water, Oil & Gas Summit — in Dubai.

Her group had gotten interested in water scarcity as an issue several years ago, she said, “and the more we learned, the more it became our main concern.” That interest in turn alerted them to high water usage by the fossil-fuel industry, she said.

But in Dubai, the issue was really laid out. The industry representatives “were very honest about the amount of water to be used,” Hauter said. “There was no pretense about natural gas being a transition to renewable [forms of energy]. This was about getting every drop out of the ground.” There are plans to use fracking on the ocean floor, she said.

At the conference were companies seeking to profit from water scarcity and also from cleaning up pollution caused by fracking and other fossil fuel processes, she said.

Resistance to shale gas development is also growing in other countries, Hauter said. France has banned fracking in most cases, as has Bulgaria, she said, plus at least one state in Germany. The “Global Frackdown” grassroots event planned for Sept. 22 will focus on the local situations in many places around the world.

“It’s an international movement,” Hauter said. “People are terrified about what will happen to their water.”


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