Monday, August 15, 2011

What the Frack? Despite Desperate Drought, Texas Water Going to Hydrofracking

The folks of Kemp, in north Texas, gathered in a local park last week, joined hands and bowed their heads in prayer. It was another day of searing heat.

"In Jesus' name, we will have water and rain, and that all our problems here in Kemp will be solved," one of the townsfolk said.

The townsfolk had one thing to be grateful for. The night before, the town restored water service to Kemp's taps and faucets. Still under Stage 5 water restrictions, folks could at least turn on their taps and get a flow. 37 consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures had overwhelmed the town's aging water system, and the parched, baking earth had ruptured 14 water mains in the preceding three weeks. The mayor had been forced to shut off the town's water.

"No water," Mayor Donald Kile said. "Zero water."

While Texas roasted in the worst single-year drought on record, the state's lucrative hydrofracking industry continued to pump billions of gallons of water into the ground to shatter underground shale formations and extract natural gas.

The Texas Water Development Board reported 37,000 acre-feet of water, some 12 billion gallons, would be mixed into a toxic cocktail and pumped into the Texas earth for hydrofracking this year. The volume of water needed for hydrofracking was expected to rise to 120,000 acre-feet, or 39 billion gallons, per year within the next twenty years.

Leaving the folks of Kemp with a whole lot of powerful praying to do.

All across the state, the drought was devastating whole ecosystems. Ponds and rivers and streams and creeks had dried up, leaving fish bones scattered on the desiccating mud. Deer nibbled on parched scrub. Desperate wild turkeys pecked at red ants.

"It has a compound effect on a multitude of species and organisms and habitat types because of the way it's chained and linked together," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jeff Bonner. "So, there's a domino effect that goes out in however many more branches than you can actually ever keep count of."

Since the beginning of the year, Texas has seen less than half the amount of rain that normally falls on the state, 6 inches instead of 13. Half the state's 3,700 rivers and streams were below normal flow rates. Seven reservoirs were effectively empty.

Yet, Texas continued to divert billions of gallons to the state's hydrofracking biz. Hydrofracking along a single sickle-shaped shale formation slicing across south Texas, the Eagle Ford, consumed 6,000 acre-feet of water in 2010, and was slated to consume even more this year. When production peaked in the Eagle Ford sometime around 2024, hydrofracking was expected to devour 45,000 acre-feet, or 14 billion gallons, of water.

Aside from the titanic environmental problems posed by pumping billions of gallons of toxic water into the ground, which everyone making piles of money off the projects insisted was completely harmless, Texas was facing the more immediate problem of where it might get all that water when its rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers were running dry.

Which showed how silly people had been worrying that hydrofracking might contaminate drinking water. Hydrofracking wasn't about to leave any drinking water left to contaminate.

"I'm a capitalist person," Dr. Marcus Sims, who owned a small spread near Ozona, said to make sure folks understood he was a real Texan and not some pencil-necked California pinko liberal, "and you do what's most economically feasible for your business to make a profit, and I don't have a problem with anybody making a profit. But, if it depletes the underground water tables, then we're all going to have a problem."

"I want them to quit using fresh water for fracking," said Crockett Groundwater Conservation District manager Slate Williams. He warned water levels in the 34,000-square-mile Edwards-Trinity Plateau Aquifer have been declining steadily for decades, and didn't get replenished except during years when Crockett County got at least 80% of its normal 15 inches of annual rain.

"It is declining year after year, so fracking or any little thing makes it speed up that much more," Williams said. Crockett County had only seen two inches of rain since October.  

The amount of water required to frack a well ran anywhere from 50,000 to 13 million gallons. Oil and gas companies have descended upon thousands of wells previously considered tapped out that were producing natural gas again because of hydrofracking. When hydrofracking shatters the shale layers deep underground, natural gas trapped in the shale is released like you'd cracked the cap off a shaken-up soda pop bottle.

In Texas, almost all the hydrofracking was done with massive amounts of fresh water trucked to the site and stored in huge containers until it got mixed into toxic "frac fluid" that's pumped into the ground.

"For some purposes, brackish water is just fine, but for fracking, and given the specific sort of engineering and pressure they're using...fresh water works better," said Ben Sheppard of Permian Basin Petroleum Association, a hydrofracking advocacy group.

While hydrofracking advocates were advocating fresh water for fracking, some ordinary folks were left with recycled sewage for drinking water.

"When you talk about toilet-to-tank, it makes a lot of people nervous and grossed out," said Terri Telchik of the Big Spring city manager's office.

"We're taking treated effluent, normally discharged into a creek, and blending it with (fresh) water," Colorado River Municipal Water District manager John Grant said.

"We're going through a real bad drought," Telchik said for the benefit of anyone who hadn't noticed.

The drought in Texas had reached into every corner of the state except the oil and gas industry. While towns and municipalities urged their residents to curb outdoor irrigation and save whatever water that was left, while some towns were mixing treated sewage effluent with their drinking water, while wildlife clung precariously to existence and some small hamlets flat ran dry, the hydrofracking industry continued to mix billions of gallons of fresh water with toxics to pump into the ground.

The universal Texas solution of prayer seemed only to work for oil and gas moguls, and they only seemed to be repeating the catechism of another Texan from bygone days: "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?"

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