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Fracking and Drought: They Call It Texas Tea, But You Can’t Drink It

Joseph Romm's picture
American Progress
  • Member since 2018
  • 1,651 items added with 350,287 views
  • Aug 15, 2013

How dry is it in Texas? So dry some residents are wishing for a hurricane to replenish the aquifer. So dry that many Texans are now against using water to frack for oil, which is famously called Texas Tea.

Every fracking job requires several million gallons of water. “Only about 20 percent to 25 percent on average of the water is recovered, while the rest disappears underground, never to be seen again.” Fracking is probably not the wisest use of water anywhere, but in a drought it’s downright self-destructive.

In one South Texas county, fracking was nearly one quarter of total water use in 2011, a fraction that is expected to hit one third soon. The Texas Water Development Board estimates frackers used 13.5 billion gallons water used in 2010, a number they project to more than double by 2020!

Back in June, CP’s Tom Kenworthy reported on a Ceres study of 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells that found nearly half these wells were in places “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.

Of course the warming-worsened drought in Texas has left much of the state parched. The town of Barnhart actually ran out of water. And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality projects some 30 communities could run out of water by year’s end.


Last week I reported that drought-stricken New Mexico farmers were so desperate for income they were draining their aquifer to sell water for fracking. Now the UK Guardian reports that the Texas “fracking boom sucks away precious water from beneath the ground, leaving cattle dead, farms bone-dry and people thirsty”:

Ranchers dumped most of their herds. Cotton farmers lost up to half their crops. The extra draw down, coupled with drought, made it impossible for local ranchers to feed and water their herds, said Buck Owens. In a good year, Owens used to run 500 cattle and up to 8,000 goats on his 7,689 leased hectares (19,000 acres). Now he’s down to a few hundred goats.

The drought undoubtedly took its toll but Owens reserved his anger for the contractors who drilled 104 water wells on his leased land, to supply the oil companies.

Water levels were dropping in his wells because of the vast amounts of water being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity-Plateau Aquifer, a 34,000 sq mile water bearing formation.

“They are sucking all of the water out of the ground, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of water trucks here every day bringing fresh water out of the wells,” Owens said.

Milk-Oil-Drink-83119And this occurs even as “Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools.” As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with many Texans. Glenda Kuykendall, whose trees are dying because she can’t water them, complains “The state is mandating our water system to conserve water but why?… Getting one oil well fracked takes more water than the entire town can drink or use in a day.”

It may be called Texas tea, but you can’t drink it (h/t for the above image). Of course, you can burn more of it to import water:

Other communities across a bone-dry south-west are resorting to extraordinary measures to keep the water flowing. Robert Lee, also in the oil patch, has been hauling in water by tanker. So has Spicewood Beach, a resort town 40 miles from Austin, which has been trucking in water since early 2012.

The epic tragedy is that most of the water used for fracking is not recoverable, and the fossil fuels being unsustainably extracted with previous, dwindling water supplies are only speeding up the day when the droughts become permanent and the land turns into a Dust Bowl.

West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but under climate change, the south-west has been experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Underground aquifers failed to regenerate. “What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the camel is already overloaded,” said [Texas climatologist Katharine Hayhoe].

Recent rains in Texas haven’t changed the picture much. “We’ve got to get floods. We’ve got to get a hurricane to move up in our country and just saturate everything to replenish the aquifer,” said Owens. “Because when the water is gone. That’s it. We’re gone.”

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Aug 14, 2013

Well this is a good example or … Regulatory failure. It is the regulator’s job to ensure water is available. So while fracking is using a lot of water, you cannot blame it unless they are exceeding their abstraction limits. In the EU, you are heavily fined for this but I have yet to see any proof of this.

Joseph Romm's picture
Thank Joseph for the Post!
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