Some fear drillers could be tapping out Texas’ vital aquifers
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a continuing series on water issues produced by the University of North Texas journalism graduate students and faculty in collaboration with the Denton Record-Chronicle.
MONTAGUE COUNTY — Tank trucks carrying groundwater thunder by on a nearby highway as Terry Fender sheds his hat, wipes his brow and kneels to record the water level of a well bordered by cracked cement in northern Montague County.
It’s 85 degrees under a cloudless Texas sky, and the live oaks scattered around the well don’t offer much shade. Since the drought struck the region in 2009, the pasture surrounding the well has been reduced to scorched earth.
Sweat dripping down his forehead, Fender looks as worn out and thirsty as the surrounding pastureland. He’s spent the last two years checking on wells, driving the back roads of north-central Texas, crossing cattle guards and passing hundred-year-old windmills that still furnish ranchers, farmers and homeowners with water from the Trinity Aquifer flowing under the brittle surface of their land.
But now Fender and many others who depend on the Trinity Aquifer, their only source of water, fear the aquifer might be in mortal danger. Since 2005, oil and gas drilling in Denton, Wise and Montague counties has sucked billions of gallons of water from the Trinity Aquifer.
The energy companies contend there is no proof that their drilling activities are responsible for depleting the aquifer. It could be drought. Or it could be that some residents are experiencing low water levels because their wells are poorly designed or poorly maintained, according to industry spokesmen.
But many concerned residents here in this scenic county 50 miles northwest of Denton are skeptical of industry denials.
Hydraulic fracturing uses an average of 4.5 million gallons of water to extract gas from just one well — more water than is used annually by some of the smaller communities in Montague County and other rural counties across North Texas.
As the water trucks rumble by and water well levels plummet, Fender can’t help but wonder, “What are they doing to the Trinity?”
Walk into any diner in North Texas and the question hangs in the air. Sure, they say, we depend on the oil and gas industry for jobs and economic growth. And landowners have the right to cash in on their mineral rights. But what will become of our communities if they deplete our groundwater?
Neither the oil and gas industry nor the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, a state agency that regulates the drillers’ water consumption in four North Texas counties, have assuaged residents’ concerns about the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the Trinity Aquifer. So landowners hired someone to come up with answers. But finding them hasn’t been easy.
At the request of the Montague County Property Owners Association, a group of ranchers and ordinary citizens, Fender began crisscrossing the far-flung ranches of the county about two years ago to record water levels in wells sunk into the aquifer. He spent many months evaluating his measurements to get a handle on the condition of the groundwater flowing through fissures in the rock formations several hundred feet below the surface.
“See right here?” says Fender, pointing to the measurements on his sonar device. “The well’s level is down another six feet.”
Fender lifts himself off his knee, shakes his head. The water table measurements — revealed in digital numbers on his sonar device — suggest that aquifer water levels are dropping so rapidly that the six-year-old drought afflicting the area can’t be held solely responsible. And his findings have convinced most members of the property owners association that gas drillers’ industrial-powered extraction from the aquifer is putting their underground reservoir at far greater risk of running dry than the drought.
“They’re definitely responsible,” says Robert McPhee, president of Montague County Property Owners Association.
The Trinity isn’t the only major aquifer facing calamity. There are nine major aquifers in Texas that provide almost 60 percent of all the water used by residents, ranchers, businesses, industry and other consumers in the state. According to the Texas Water Development Board, the Trinity, which provides water for 61 counties (including Montague) in the central and northeastern sections of the state, is in greater jeopardy than all of Texas’ other underground reservoirs.
From Montague County to McLennan County, 90 miles to the south, “some of the state’s largest water declines, ranging from 350 to more than 1,000 feet, have occurred in counties along the I-35 corridor,” reports the state water board. It also says that counties served by the Trinity are either “currently experiencing or expected to experience within the next 25 years critical groundwater problems with the quality and/or the quantity of groundwater available.”
Fender doesn’t see himself as the Joan of Arc for the Trinity Aquifer. He and his wife joined the migration of aging baby boomers from Dallas to Montague County in 2002, looking to spend their twilight years in the quiet embrace of a 15-mile wide swath of timberland known as the Upper Cross Timbers. He enjoyed working with his bees and watching deer and squirrels scamper through the forest, around rusty pump jacks slowly lifting the last deposits of oil from the county.
Boom from fracking
Yet, like most of his neighbors, Fender didn’t know that a new technology — hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking — would trigger a gas drilling boom in Montague and surrounding counties shortly after he moved to the area.
So when his lawn sprinklers began giving him headaches, he didn’t know what to think.
His well had always yielded as much as he needed to water his lawn. Suddenly, the water pressure began dropping. Fender said he discovered the water level in his well had shrunk to 165 feet from 95 feet when he first built his two-story house. Was the drought now afflicting it as well? he wondered. Fender brought his concerns to the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District. But officials told him they couldn’t do anything about his concerns. They needed proof.
Before long, Fender discovered that other Montague County property owners also worried about the impact of fracking on the Trinity Aquifer.
“If there ain’t no water, a human can’t live,” Mike Hudspeth told a group of Forestburg residents in September 2012. They had come together during a meeting with the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District to discuss concerns about how much water drillers were using for hydraulic fracturing.
Bob Patterson, director of the groundwater district, told local residents that 25 oil and gas companies drilling in Montague County had extracted nearly 3 billion gallons of groundwater since 2009. The county’s 19,710 residents used 388 million gallons during the same time period, he reported.
Unlike houses and businesses within city limits that have meters to measure water consumption, Patterson explained that government regulators use an “honor system” for the oil and gas industry. The industry simply reports its water usage every three to six months. “We just don’t have the manpower to check all the wells,” he says.
All of which explains why Fender’s life took a sharp turn — from living a contemplative life in the forest as a beekeeper to joining the Montague County Property Owners Association and dipping into his savings to buy a sonar water well measuring device. He was searching for answers to the many mysteries surrounding the depletion of the Trinity Aquifer.
It doesn’t take a sonar device to see where millions of gallons of groundwater are going: into brand-new lakes sprouting across the parched plains of Montague and surrounding counties.
The persistent drought continues to drain longstanding lakes in the region — down to 25 percent of capacity in some places. Meanwhile, the gas industry replenishes its own groundwater lakes with fresh water, thanks to their pipelines and pumps sucking water from the Trinity Aquifer.
From a distance, the crystal-clear waters of these industrial pools look like attractive recreational spots for boaters, water skiers and fishermen. But these lakes aren’t used for recreation. They’re for fracking. Residents report that even deer, bobcats and coyotes avoid their black-plastic lined shores.
A few weeks ago, water haulers for Key Energy Services found five dogs floating in a half-mile-long groundwater lake, their bloated bodies attracting flies and vultures. The dogs were unable to climb up the slick plastic linings.
“Once they’re in the pit, they’re doomed,” says one water hauler.
An elderly rancher in Forestburg was approached by representatives of EOG Resources, a former subsidiary of Enron Corp. They offered to pay him big money to allow the company to dig a 1-acre pit on his ranch to store water pulled from the Trinity for fracking. No one had ever asked him to “farm” water before.
“We’re not taking away from human consumption for future generations, are we?” the rancher asks.
Today, 90 reservoirs holding millions of gallons of groundwater for hydraulic fracturing have sprouted across Montague County.
Water trucks thunder down the dirt roads surrounding Graham Eudey’s 10-acre homestead as he lays several water well maps of Montague and Cooke counties on his kitchen counter. Less than a mile from Eudey’s home outside Bowie, EOG Resources drilled five new water wells and pipelined the water in a 5-acre groundwater lake.
Eudey removes his hat and rubs his bloodshot eyes. He’s been spending most of his nights reading EOG water well reports. Before EOG’s water wells appeared, Eudey and his neighbors were able to take showers and wash a load of laundry while watering their lawns. Now, they claim there’s not enough water to take a bath.
Eudey tilts his camouflage cap and runs his finger across maps showing the water wells that oil and gas companies have drilled in the region.
The drillers sink wells that are typically much deeper than the average homeowner’s, he says, and use powerful pumps to draw groundwater toward their wells. This water extraction system creates what hydrologists call a “cone of depression,” which enables drillers to suction water from twice the depth of their well.
Several years ago, when EOG officials first approached area residents about drilling water wells and storing groundwater in open 5- to 15-acre pits on their land, many quickly agreed. After the cattle market collapsed, ranchers were desperate to find a new source of income. What better way than to herd water?
Some water farmers are making 35 to 50 cents a barrel for their groundwater, according to the Texas Water Recycling Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization. And under the state’s “rule of capture,” property owners have the right to recover and sell groundwater beneath their land. A common refrain among ranchers hereabouts is, “If you can tap it, you can have it.”
But now a lot of the county’s cattlemen and homeowners aren’t so sure that digging storage pits on their land and selling the groundwater to gas drillers is such a good idea. With their own groundwater supply rapidly dwindling or depleted, some of them are scrambling to find alternative water sources.
“I guess I’ll have to buy one of them contraptions that catches rainwater,” says Travis Cantrell, a Montague County resident who claims his water well dried up after the oil and gas industry drilled 50 wells around his 5-acre property, located off FM677 near Saint Jo. “And I’m not the only one either. There are several of us without water now.”
Rural residents near the city of Bowie have to raise $70,000 to build a pipeline to connect to Bowie’s municipal surface water supply a mile away. Unable to sell their homes with limited or no water supply, many of them are now moving into town.
A few oil and gas companies such as Devon Energy and EOG have begun using new technologies, including recycling water used for fracking, to reduce their consumption of groundwater. During a hydraulic fracturing job, an estimated 80 percent of the groundwater used stays in the gas shale and 20 percent returns as contaminated groundwater, or flowback, with chemicals like boron or sulfates that can hurt the drilling process. But most gas drillers maintain that the cost of cleaning up and recycling frack water is prohibitive, at least at current prices.
The amount of contaminates and the types of chemicals used in the fracking process are points of contention. Some oil and gas companies are releasing information about chemicals on websites such as FracFocus.org. The amounts being used as well as chemicals listed as “trade secrets” are under debate. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, is considering adopting rules that require oil and gas companies to reveal what chemicals they are injecting into the ground.
“We don’t really know how much they are reusing,” says Sharon Wilson, of Bluedaze Drilling Reform, a website that focuses on issues concerning the oil and gas industry. “It’s not clear either if it’s a good idea to use this flowback for fracking. When they mix these chemicals together and send it down the hole, they become something else, and when they flow back they bring other stuff with them, like radioactive material or arsenic. It’s not really clear that reusing the water is a good idea.”
Gas drillers are also recycling sewage water for fracking.
In Montague County, Bowie recently allowed EOG to build a holding tank for recycled sewage water. Instead of releasing the treated water back into the environment, now every drop of it — 400,000 to 600,000 gallons a day — goes into the holding tank, which is then piped to several groundwater pits near the city, says Joe Lyons, Bowie’s director of water and wastewater treatment.
Pioneer Natural Resources, an oil and gas company based in Irving, is now buying water from the holding tanks for groundwater pits.
A recent survey by the Texas Water Development Board found that only a fraction of drillers are recycling frack water. In Midland, for example, recycled water accounts for just 2 percent of total water used for drilling.
The trees fell first — oaks, walnuts and dozens of other large trees — some that had stood in the Upper Cross Timbers for hundreds of years. Penny Jordan didn’t hear the bulldozers or see the clearing crew. But she and her husband, Ivars Lusis, realized something was happening when an earthen wall went up near their property.
Every weekend, Jordan, a sales manager in Dallas, and Lusis, a railroad employee, travel about 5 miles from their homestead just south of Saint Jo to clear brush off their retirement property, which they purchased in hopes of escaping noise and pollution concerns posed by gas drilling.
“We looked at maps and made sure there weren’t any wells or drilling near the place,” Jordan says.
Three months later, EOG purchased a property near their future retirement home for a proposed sand mine facility. “We went from having oil and gas wells in our front yard to having a sand mine in our backyard.”
EOG’s sand mining will be a water-intensive process. Similar operations throughout the country involve processing nearly 500 tons of raw sand per hour and require about 3,700 gallons of water a minute to treat it.
If it runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the mining operation on the Cooke and Montague county line would require more than 5 million gallons of water a day, or about 2 billion gallons a year, according to some estimates. That would be enough water to sustain residents in drought-stricken towns like Robert Lee, Rosston or Spicewood Beach for several years.
Jordan and her husband had heard about gas drilling when they moved to Montague County in 2006 but had never experienced an oil and gas boom firsthand. Within a few years, however, hydraulic fracturing exploded across the region. Rig towers filled the horizon, and water and oil trucks were rumbling along previously quiet country roads every three or four minutes.
“Our initial concern was contamination,” explains Lusis. “But the more we looked at fracking, it shifted to an almost equal concern of the volume of water.”
So, when he and Jordan received a letter from an oil and gas company seeking to lease their land, they declined the offer. But the wells continued to appear and soon their house was surrounded by them.
In August 2012, at a packed public meeting in Muenster, organized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to address public concern over EOG’s proposed sand mine operations, Travis Cantrell stood stone-faced at a microphone to rail against the impact of fracking and sand mining on groundwater supplies in Montague and Cook counties.
The water table under Muenster, a Cooke County city of 1,600, had dropped 15 feet in just one year.
“Let’s talk about dry water wells,” Cantrell fumes. “My well went dry. So I asked the water well man, ‘What can I do? He said, ‘You can’t drill at 300 feet. You can’t drill at 600 feet because they’re [gas drillers] pumping all those sandstone [formations] dry, too.’ I thought … ‘I can never have groundwater again.’”
Cantrell’s furor cascades across the walls of the schoolhouse, gathering loud applause from the audience.
“We plan to get together, 400 or 500 of us, as soon as we run out of water, we plan to get together and sue the hell out of you,” he roars to a cheering crowd. The moderator quickly cuts him off and he is escorted out of the auditorium.
But today Cantrell’s concerns resound across the country. “How much water can they take?” asks Jordan, who now heads Save the Trinity, a grass-roots group of ranchers and homeowners. “How many millions of gallons will be taken from the aquifer before there isn’t anything left? It’s the sheer volume of water, and they don’t recycle. It’s dumped into pits or injected into the ground. It’s just gone, and the aquifers can’t recharge.”
Many families are dependent on the oil and gas industry for their livelihood in this part of the country. This means Save the Trinity’s drive to protect groundwater resources also generates considerable anxiety among many residents.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say they support what I’m doing, but they can’t do so openly because ‘my husband works here,’ or ‘my daughter’s employed there,’ or ‘we make parts for oilfield equipment,’” says Jordan.
Cycle comes full circle
The clanging and banging of drilling rigs resound day and night outside Graham Eudey’s homestead. Six new oil and gas wells have popped up on his neighbors’ properties in the last few months, and four more are about to be drilled. At a time when so many ranchers and homeowners are seeing their wells running dry, Eudey says he can’t understand why the state’s water conservation districts allow drillers to suck up so much water from the Trinity.
So, Eudey took matters into his own hands and wrote EOG Resources to complain about its water consumption. On Jan. 9, 2013, he received a letter from EOG Resources saying the company “is not responsible for the vanishing well water.” EOG said the culprit was silt and sand buildup in the homeowners’ water wells stemming from their “poor design.”
Eudey shakes his head. “My neighbors didn’t start having problems with sand and silt until they started having to lower their pumps into the sand and silt. The water table’s significant dropping is the issue.”
Concerned residents gathered in Forestburg to meet with representatives of Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, the Forestburg Waterboard, Montague County Property Owners Association and EOG Resources. EOG representatives decided not to attend the meeting, and have declined repeated requests by the Denton Record-Chronicle for comment.
The meeting was called to discuss Forestburg’s dwindling water resources, a proposal to build a second water well and the oil and gas industry’s consumption of the county’s water supply. Last year, the industry accounted for 91 percent of total water usage in Montague County, according to the Bowie News.
“The fact that they’re destroying the water for human consumption should be enough,” says Tracy Mesler, Montague County’s district representative to the groundwater conservation district, in response to residents who believe that “rule of capture” needs to be changed.
Eudey couldn’t agree more.
But like most other county residents, he says his options are limited. He says he doesn’t have $75,000 to build a pipeline to a town more than a mile away, which receives its water from a lake in danger of drying up because of the drought. Nor does he have the money to build a big storage tank, especially since that would be a wasted expense if his well runs dry altogether.
But that doesn’t mean he’s doing nothing. He’s joined the Montague County Property Association, and now he’s having his well monitored for the first time by Terry Fender.
“We’re all done,” says Fender, removing his blue hat.
“That’s it?” asks Eudey.
Fender shows him his water table reading.
For the drought-stricken region, it’s normal.
When he finishes his report, Fender shakes Eudey’s hand and heads toward his pickup. It’s been a long day, and he has several more wells to check tomorrow.
“We’ve got to look at the long term,” Fender says. “We know that there’s a tremendous amount of water coming out [for gas drilling]. Something’s got to be done.”