Just below the surface

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For the DRC/Spike Johnson
Water sits in a lined stock pond in Cooke County. Operators use between 1 million and 7 million gallons of water to frack a gas well in the Barnett Shale. An acre-foot of water contains 325,851 gallons.
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In Parker County, Tom and Barbara Vastine say their well water seemed to change last summer, smelling different than normal. So they started buying bottled water for drinking and cooking.

Natural gas wells aren't visible from their home, but they are not far away - over the hill to the southwest, up the road to the north. They thought that might be the source of the problem.

When they noticed a truck delivering water to the house across the road, that was when Tom Vastine realized: "Maybe I need to talk to the neighbors."

It turned out the neighbors also think their water smells foul, but no one seems to know what's causing the problem.

Bleach in the well will stop the smell for a short time; then it comes back.

The Vastines discover that the Parker County Health Department will test the water for them, but they haven't taken a sample in yet. They're waiting a few more days, knowing the latest bleach treatment should wear off soon.

A fine grit circled the bathtub in Damon and Amber Smith's home two years ago, not long after drilling began northwest of their home in the town of Dish.

Soon, the Smiths' well water appeared cloudy. The couple installed a filter system, which helped for a while. A year later, their water pressure dropped and the filter system kept getting clogged with a gray substance no matter how often it was cleaned.

TCEQ ordered the creation of the district in order to better monitor the draws everyone, including the gas industry, makes from the Trinity Aquifer.

In an area long known for agriculture, oil and gas production grew in prominence starting in the 1920s. The agricultural industry and oil and gas producers coexisted without too much friction until new technology transformed how gas is extracted from underground shale.

For each well, millions of gallons of water - harvested from aquifers, lakes, stock ponds - are brought to a well site, mixed with sand and chemicals, and sent below ground to force the shale to release natural gas in a practice called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The result of the process is that neither the land where the gas wells are located nor the water is available for agriculture.

Is fracking safe? No one really knows. Many of the claims on both sides are anecdotal. That's why Congress ordered the EPA to study the practice. The federal agency allocated $1.8 million in 2010 to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water quality and public health, and has budgeted $4.3 million for 2011.

The study will consider water quality, water quantity and waste disposal, and evaluate spills, leaks and contamination caused by activities related to gas production other than fracking.

Ten to 20 contaminated sites will be selected for in-depth investigation. A panel of 23 scientists not affiliated with the gas industry, including David Burnett of Texas A&M University and Dr. Danny Reible of the University of Texas, will review the methodology for the research.

Findings of the massive study, inaugurated with a meeting in Fort Worth attended by more than 600 people, are expected to be released in 2012.

"It's a difficult thing to do the forensic analysis of water well contamination. Usually you're limited by the resources you have," says Philip Dellinger, chief of the Ground Water/

Underground Injection Control Section of the EPA, which monitors disposal of the industry's wastewater, at Region 6 in Dallas. He's confident the study will settle the issue of whether fracking is safe or not.

"If this is safe, let's put the fear to rest. If not, let's make it safe," Dellinger says.

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With water, Texans have always been concerned about two things: supply and quality.

Texans know water to be a precious resource. Since a seven-year drought in the 1950s, they have schemed to bring water from other states, including a plan to build a giant canal across Louisiana that would carry water from the Mississippi River and a current court battle with Oklahoma concerning rights to water in the Red River Basin.

"Every six to nine years, there will be a drought," says Randall Davis, general manager of Argyle Water Supply Corp. "It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when." If North Texas goes 18 months without significant rainfall - as happened between 2004 and 2006 - the area is in a drought, he says.

In 2006, "every water utility in the state was begging people to slow down," Davis says. "We have a water crisis here, long term."

How much water does it take to satisfy North Texans?

On a winter day when few water their lawns, the Bartonville Water Supply Corp. uses three-quarters to a million gallons of water a day. The corporation has 2,200 meters, mostly for residences, so it provides water for 6,000 to 7,000 people. On a hot summer day, when residents are irrigating their landscaped acreage, the corporation pumps about 3 million gallons out of its seven wells.

If the wells can't provide it in sufficient quantity, the corporation buys surface water from Upper Trinity Water Resources District, which gets it from Ray Roberts and Lewisville lakes.

As of the end of November, the Railroad Commission reported more than 14,000 gas wells in the 23 counties of the Barnett Shale and more than 3,000 permitted locations. In January 2011, the commission recorded 175 permits to drill and 86 gas drill completions. No one measures the exact amount of water it takes to produce gas from these wells.

The oil and gas industry uses a combination of groundwater, surface water and water purchased from utilities. Some use brackish water, which is lower in salinity than salt water and has few uses, and some buy wastewater. As a result, Bill Mullican, water consultant for the North Texas Groundwater Conservation District, says no one fully knows where the water comes from or how much is used.

"Because of the nature of water law in Texas, these activities are exempt," he says. Texas law gives landowners control of water under the rule of capture, which allows them to pump as much water as they choose without liability to surrounding landowners. Even the law that gives more control to the groundwater conservation districts exempts most uses related to mining.

Geologists estimate that it takes about 250,000 gallons of water to drill a gas well, and another 1 million to 7 million gallons to frack it. The water that comes back up the well bore is laden with salt, chemicals, heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive material. In North Texas, the wastewater can be disposed of by injecting it 8,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface into a porous limestone formation called the Ellenberger. But this water is no longer part of the water cycle. It cannot be used again.

Less frequently, the water that is brought up is distilled and used again for drilling and fracking. Any solid residue filtered out goes to landfills. While more expensive than injection, this treatment can be more practical in some cases for the operators, particularly in other parts of the country where injecting disposal water is not an option.

On March 11, state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, filed House Bill 3328, which would require companies to disclose the composition of fracking fluids. The bill, which has since been referred to the Energy Resources Committee for review, has several co-signers, including Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound and Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton.

At Devon Energy's Fountain Quail Water Management facility about six miles west of Texas Motor Speedway, up to 10,000 barrels (420,000 gallons) of wastewater a day can be processed so that 80 percent becomes distilled water reused for drilling and fracking, and the remaining 20 percent is heavy brine, which can be used for other oilfield activities.

Devon started water recycling in 2005 to reduce the amount of water taken to disposal sites, says Jay Ewing, completion/construction manager for Devon Energy in Bridgeport. The water is trucked in from wells within a 15-mile radius of the site in Denton and Wise counties, but it leaves the site in pipelines.

Fountain Quail, which started in Canada, has operations in the Fayetteville Shale, near Conway in north central Arkansas. It is permitted to release water into the surface water supply, which would include rivers and lakes.

The Texas Railroad Commission continues to repeat its stance that there are no confirmed reports of water contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing.

The EPA disagrees.

The first stories about the risks of gas drilling contaminating water came from the West - Pavilion, Wyo., where the EPA confirmed in August that its water wells contained toxic compounds. There have been reports of contamination in Colorado, in North Dakota, in Oklahoma and in Pennsylvania.

The reports have become more frequent, more detailed and closer to Texas, until December when the EPA ordered Range Resources to take immediate action to protect homeowners living near one of its operations in southern Parker County. The drinking water from two wells had extremely high levels of methane and other contaminants, including benzene.

On Dec. 7, Range was ordered to deliver potable water to the residences, sample soil gas around the residences, sample all nearby drinking water wells, provide methane gas monitors to alert homeowners of dangerous conditions, develop a plan to remediate areas of the aquifer that have been contaminated, and investigate the structural integrity of a nearby natural gas well to determine if it is the source of contamination.

On Jan. 18, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Range Resources to enforce the order. Range has offered to provide the residences with drinking water and installed monitors, but has not complied with the other requirements of the order. The complaint asks the court to direct the companies to comply and to pay a civil penalty of up to $16,500 per day of violation.

Scientists testifying for Range claimed the contamination came from a different formation than the Barnett during a hearing at the Railroad Commission in Austin. The commission agreed March 22, absolving Range of responsibility as far as the state of Texas was concerned.

Recently, a customer brought a water sample to the Bartonville Water Supply Corp., saying that the water had been tested and the test revealed a secondary contaminant, MBAS - methylene blue active substances - which can be used in the formula for drilling mud. Because it is used to break surface tension in water, MBAS can also be used in products not related to petroleum production. By itself, it is not dangerous, but it can cause a bitter taste, suds or an odor.

Jim Leggieri, general manager of Bartonville Water Supply, had the water in all seven of its wells tested, once by a state laboratory and again by an independent lab. His counterpart, Randall Davis, had Argyle's five wells tested. No petroleum-related contaminants were found in any of the wells.

"Our water is fine," Leggieri says. "I'm not saying that the potential isn't there. The more gas wells drilled, the more injection wells, the more those chances increase."

He is looking into insurance in addition to the pollution insurance that the water supplier is required to have. "The insurance would not be for what we might do to someone, but what someone might do to us," he says.

When a company proposed drilling 15 wells across the street from two Bartonville Water Supply wells, Leggieri met with company representatives. They said they would place pipe, called casing, through the freshwater formations and then pressure-cement it, a term for putting cement between the pipe and the soil so that water cannot move up through the drilled hole.

Leggieri said his customers needed more than that. He asked the company to put the water supply corporation on its insurance as a beneficiary. It refused. Eventually the project was abandoned.

"I don't believe any oil and gas company wants to intentionally pollute the water supply or the air, but it's not foolproof. It's not guaranteed," he says.

The EPA announced in February that Bartonville and Flower Mound were on a list of four areas being considered for its study of hydraulic fracturing.

Contamination can happen several ways, says Dr. J.P. Nicot of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas. Nicot is working on two studies: water sources in the Barnett Shale for the Department of Energy, and water use in all the Texas shale formations - Barnett, Eagle Ford and Haynesville - for the Texas Water Development Board.

When contaminated wastewater is taken away from the drilling site in a truck or a pipeline, it can spill or leak. Although fracking water is less than 1 percent chemicals, he says, the danger would be caused by the quantity of water involved. Another source of potential contamination would be a bad cement job in the well bore.

"Some claim you can get a direct connection from the shale through fracking to the top. That might be more likely in the Marcellus, which is shallower than the Barnett," Dr. Nicot says. "My gut feeling is that it doesn't seem like something geologically possible."

His reaction to the report of contaminated water wells in Parker County is that science hasn't had time to talk. Industry and environmentalists don't want to compromise, and the scientists are caught in the middle.

"You want to take your time as a scientist. The more political, the more time you need to take to avoid being biased," he says.

Texas has ample regulations, Nicot says. The problem is that state regulators "can't levy fines with any impact. We need better enforcement and bigger fines."

In Cooke County, Kenny Klement hopes that metering by the groundwater conservation district will provide information about how much water is being taken by the gas drillers, and that information can go to state regulators and representatives.

"The Legislature is going to have to do something," he says. "They're going to have to stop them from using the fresh water out from under us." He looks at the rolling hills near where he and his sons farm and remembers building terraces and picking out rocks from the land.

"To me, this is God's country." VITAL RESOURCE

Water is measured in many ways - gallons, barrels, acre feet - and most of us couldn't say how many gallons we use when taking a shower or watering our lawns. A gallon is about 8 pounds of water. A barrel holds 42 gallons. An acre-foot - one foot of water covering an area slightly smaller than a football field - is 325,851 gallons. An Olympic-sized swimming pool holds approximately 600,000 gallons.

On average, residents of Denton use about 16 million gallons of water a day, but can use twice as much during a hot summer day because of landscape irrigation, according to the city's website. Denton owns rights to 24.1 million gallons of water per day from Lewisville and Ray Roberts lakes.

If you are a farmer raising corn, you will need 2 acre-feet every year for every acre of crop, according to Bill Mullican, a geoscientist who was deputy executive administrator for water science and conservation for the Texas Water Development Board when he retired in 2009. When it comes to using water, agriculture is still the top contender in Texas, taking about 57 percent of all the water that is used, according to the board.

Texans use both groundwater and surface water. A hard rain can refill a lake quickly, but Texas can also go months and sometimes years without significant rainfall. Most cities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area tap area lakes for drinking water, but many small towns and rural areas on the periphery still depend on groundwater. About 60 percent of the state's drinking water still comes from groundwater.

Groundwater is also replenished with rainfall, but the rate can vary according to the soil and rocks on the surface. With ample rainfall, the Edwards Aquifer in Central Texas replenishes quickly because limestone formations allow water to percolate down easily. The Ogallala in the Panhandle recharges more slowly because of the dense clay soil as well as smaller amounts of rain.

-Pennie Boyett

 

 


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