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Approaching record drought, Texas water districts consider oil and gas industry use

In the midst of the second-worst drought in Texas history, towns across the state are going to extreme measures to cope, capping residential water use, and limiting the number of days households can water their lawns. Earlier this week, the West Texas town of Kemp ran out of water. In Big Spring, the local water district is building a plant to recycle treated wastewater back into the drinking supply.

But oil and gas producers are injecting millions of gallons of freshwater into the ground at a time, with hydraulic fracturing jobs in every corner of the state, from once-abandoned oil fields in West Texas to the South Texas boom towns of the Eagle Ford Shale.

Even while downplaying risks of water contamination, industry officials have said the state’s water shortage could choke Texas’ growing natural gas industry, and some operators have begun preparing for tighter regulation of their water usage.

But with a patchwork of state agencies and local water conservation districts responsible for Texas’ water use — and state laws that exempt much of the oil and gas industry — it’s a mystery just how much water is being pumped into the ground for hydrofracking, or how the state could limit industry’s water use.

A report released in July by the Texas Water Development Board estimated that industry uses about 12 billion gallons of water annually for hydrofracking in Texas now, but that demand will grow to 39.1 billion gallons before 2030.

As the San Antonio Current reported when the report was released, the report included new estimates for the growing Eagle Ford Shale:

Final projections for the Eagle Ford have since been shifted up as high as 45,000 acre-feet (14.6 billion gallons) at peak production — now expected to hit seven years earlier in 2024. Last year, the formation required around 6,000 acre-feet of water. This year’s activity has been considerably more demanding that that, creating a market for water sales from the region’s ranches.

While much of the criticism around hydrofracking has focused on concerns that the process might contaminate drinking supplies — something the industry has long said is impossible — environmental groups in North Texas have also worried about the amount of water it’s required in the Barnett Shale. Those concerns were highlighted in a report released in April by the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project:

Amid increasing scarcity of water supplies, the immense quantities of water required for hydraulic fracturing are not sustainable. Huge volumes of water are needed to extract shale gas. Estimates range from 1.5 million to five million gallons of water per well, and wells may be refracked several times over the life of each well. Recently, the oil and gas industry announced a new 12-stage completion method that uses over 9 million gallons of water per well.

And while drilling continues to spread across North Texas, the industry’s spreading much faster in South Texas’ Eagle Ford, where breaking apart the shale is an even more water-intensive process. The report quoted Larry Akers, then the assistant manager of the Evergreen Water Conservation District, 35 miles south of San Antonio, on his concern about water there: “They already know they’re gonna run this area out of water; there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it… We really have no idea how much water they are pulling from our area, and it’s really frustrating.”

The situation may be most dramatic in West Texas, where the drought is most severe, and where horizontal drilling and hydrofracking have breathed new life into old wells producers had once given up on.

Slate Williams, general manager of the Crockett Groundwater Conservation District in West Texas, told a Scripps Howard News Service reporter in June that there just isn’t enough water to go around. “I want them to quit using fresh water for fracking,” he said.

Williams isn’t anti-oil but says there is a limited amount of fresh water available to sustain the area’s ranching and “quality of life” and that companies have other options available to them, including the use of brackish water.

“We don’t want to stop them from drilling, but water is a scarce resource that we can’t do without,” he said.

Industry exemption

Under the Texas Water Code, local groundwater conservation districts can issue permits for wells and charge for the water drawn out of them, but they can’t require permits from oil and gas producers for their water wells — those companies would already have a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission.

Still, companies submit monthly water use reports to some companies. At the Evergreen Underground Water Conservation District, less than 30 miles from the Mexican border, Debbie Farmer said they’ve been requiring monthly water use disclosure for the past year or so, since production picked up in the Eagle Ford, though many companies never follow through on their reporting.

A bill new law passed this year requiring companies to disclose the chemicals in their hydrofracking fluid also requires disclosure of the amount of water used in each new frack job. Under the law, the information will be publicly available at an industry-sponsored site, FracFocus.org.

‘We don’t regulate anything’

That site includes a **page dedicated to groundwater protection efforts **in each state, which, until recently, included Texas among states with a statewide controlling agency. “In some states, the water used for fracturing is controlled by a river basin commission or water resources board such as the Susquahanna River Basin Commission or the Texas Water Development Board,” the page read.

“That is not true — we don’t regulate or control anything,” TWDB Samantha Heng told the Texas Independent in July, when directed to the page. “Each individual district controls their own water… We’re a non-regulatory agency.”

Dan Yates, communications director at the Ground Water Protection Council a nationwide group that maintains the FracFocus site, said he was surprised to hear that wasn’t TWDB’s role. (The site no longer lists the Texas board on the page.) “It can be kind of a maze to figure out who does what in an individual state,” Yates said.

He said most states have separate agencies governing water quality and water use, but that some have combined the oversight into a single agency. Some states, like Texas, have oversight splintered into many small districts across the state.

Anti-drilling activists say Texas shouldn’t rely on any system that depends on self-reporting from industry — and one district north of Dallas-Fort Worth has been able to meter water use by oil and gas producers.

‘A guinea pig district’

At the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, general manager Bob Patterson says it’s been a smooth process so far instituting metering requirements for industry wells, which they’ve done since 2009.

“We worked hard at getting those issues taken care of, they’re appointing some new water districts that will have similar authority.” The district was created in a 2007 bill by Weatherford Republican Phil King, and was the first one with the authority to meter industry water use. “We’re kind of the guinea pig district for the Legislature.”

“It’s been a learning experience. We are getting along very well with the oil and gas industry,” Patterson said. Companies self-report their meter readings to the district each month, he said, though he said his staff conducts random checks. Companies pay a small fee per gallon — “It’s almost negligible,” he said.

Patterson said when they began metering, he expected to see that industry was the largest consumer of water. But they account for less than one quarter of the water from his district, he said. Municipalities drew three times the water industry did.

Patterson said they’ve discussed the possibility of instituting tighter controls on water use, but not targeting oil and gas companies specifically.

“We have the authority to limit production, but it has to be across the board,” Patterson said. “If we feel like oil and gas is using too much for their fracking process, we can’t just go to oil and gas and say we’re going to impose a pumping limit.”

But one way or another, he said, every district in the state will have to get used to managing with less water. “People don’t seem to have much concern about it, they figure, ‘Well it’ll rain one of these days and we’ll have it all back.’ That’s just not the case.”

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