Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

For folks in the sandy hills northwest of Dallas, it's a devil's bargain for gas, water and jobs.

After a public meeting about the sand mine in June at which residents of Cooke and Montague counties made their worries known, EOG issued a press release stating its plans to drill the mine's wells deeper down below the Trinity Aquifer into a zone of brackish water not suitable for drinking. Typical water wells in this area are around 200 feet deep; 700 feet down is a highly saline water. Of the first six water wells EOG drilled, according to state well reports, three are, in fact, below the aquifer. The other three are in the aquifer and EOG explains the latter will be used for drinking water on site and landscaping to prevent erosion. Plans for the total number of wells EOG will eventually need are unclear, however, and locals share rumors the mine might need as many as 40.

Highlighting the premium on the aquifer water, this expanse, including Cooke, Denton and Collin counties, was recently designated a priority groundwater management area (PGMA) by the state, meaning it is expected to experience "critical" water shortages now or within the next 25 years. Come drought or flood, water supplies are already tight in this region and getting tighter.

Experts familiar with the Trinity Aquifer in this area, while hopeful, are skeptical about EOG's brackish water plans. "The brackish water below the aquifer is very spotty," says the conservation district's Patterson.

Residents near Saint Jo organized quickly in opposition when they learned a sand mine was being constructed near their homes.
Mike Mezeul
Residents near Saint Jo organized quickly in opposition when they learned a sand mine was being constructed near their homes.
They fear for their water supplies and dread the big trucks that'll be hauling down their county roads.
Mike Mezeul
They fear for their water supplies and dread the big trucks that'll be hauling down their county roads.

UNT's Hudak expresses the same doubt: "Below the aquifer are tight rock formations that don't produce a lot of water."

Since these wells are being drilled in a PGMA, they will be metered, and beginning January 1, EOG will have to pay for the water it uses, even brackish water. The newly formed North Texas Groundwater Conservation District that will manage this area will have the right to permit EOG's water usage.

While using brackish water under the aquifer is preferred to using fresh water, the practice still has drawbacks. Not suitable for human consumption, the water also isn't good for the environment. With a massive holding pond of this highly saline water used for mining sitting over the aquifer in the outcrop zone near the banks of Mountain Creek, locals are worried about potential overflow into the creek and eventually the Red River less than a mile away.

When asked about possible overflow or spillage from the storage pond, EOG spokesperson K Leonard responded in a written statement: "The facility was carefully designed, engineered and permitted to prevent any runoffs into Mountain Creek."

Law professor Amy Hardberger, who has a master's degree in hydrogeology and has worked with the Environmental Defense Fund for Texas in both the energy and water programs, thinks using brackish water is a step in the right direction for oil and gas companies.

"My initial reaction is that the situation is definitely helped by the fact that they aren't using fresh water," Hardberger says. "The Trinity is both not particularly full and, more importantly, water often moves quite slow through it so such a large amount of pumping can create major draw-down issues for other users.

"Using water that isn't being used for drinking water is much better, assuming that there is no hydrological connection between the water-bearing units such that pulling from that one could somehow dewater the Trinity. As a general rule, this is a solution I have been pushing for a while."

Locals hope there's enough brackish water below the aquifer to sustain all of EOG's operations.

Comparatively, though, the water used in mining sand is a drop in the bucket compared with the amount used in fracking itself.

According to the Texas Railroad Commission, as of July more than 15,000 natural gas wells were over the Barnett Shale, which starts under the city of Dallas and stretches west and south covering 18 counties and 5,000 square miles.

In April, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology released a report for the Texas Water Development Board that estimated that fracking each well used 3 million to 4 million gallons of water. The report determined that total water used for fracking statewide in 2008 was around 8.3 billion gallons. More recently the development board estimated total water use for the entire Barnett Shale in 2010 was 13.5 billion gallons. (Dallas' water customers used 1.42 billion gallons last year.) While EOG is using brackish water at its sand mining operation, water used in fracking is mostly fresh.

Estimating that natural gas production and drilling will decrease in the coming year, the UT report went on to project future water use for frack jobs over the Trinity Aquifer from 2007 to 2025 to be in the neighborhood of 59 billion gallons total, enough to supply a city like Dallas for decades.

"Because it's temporary, fracking will generally decrease over time," says Kevin Kluge at the water development board. "And, actually, it is still a very small part of the statewide use, but in localized areas it can be significant."

The UT report says that at some point fracking operations could compete with water for drinking and farming, but they aren't sounding alarm bells yet.

"On average for the aquifer, this is not a big deal," says J.P. Nicot at the Bureau of Economic Geology in a statement released by the University of Texas. "But for some heavily drilled areas like Denton County, it may be an issue. If that drilling expands elsewhere in the area it may become significant."

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6 comments
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Ben
Ben

The same people complaining are first ones to cry "big government" when they start restricting water usage, just like the farmers suing The Edwards Aquifer Authority!

LaurenDrewesDaniels
LaurenDrewesDaniels

Ben, you hit on the irony of the EAA case. The farmers are saying, 'we need more water.' However, if a gas/oil drill goes up over the aquifer (or sand mine) within a mile of their farms and there were no restrictions, then what would happen to their water supply?

To be honest, in all the conversations I've had and at the hours of questions I sat through at the public meeting, no one was complaining about "big government." Instead, they were asking why the TCEQ wasn't monitoring the mine more. Example, the TCEQ would rely on EOG to monitor their own air pollution levels. Locals are opposed to that. They want the TCEQ to monitor the pollution.

I understand your point, but haven't seen much evidence of that in this case.

Ben
Ben

You don't think it's a Republican county? It's certainly a red state!

Mmev
Mmev

What did the fire ( and fire threats still existing!) do to the water demands needed to fight the Montague/Cooke County fires? How much increase and where weree the sources for the firefighters??

Harris
Harris

Corruption in America is causing its demise and it has roots in Texas LawInjustice.com exposes a really disturbing case

Nasty
Nasty

Poor guys.

Too bad the Trophy Club MUD and every other entity in North Texas with a penny to spend are drilling like crazy in a race to complete wells into this depleted aquifer before the regulatory agencies introduce restrictions.

We're drinking each others milkshake and suing Oklahoma at the same time in one of the greatest eras of piss poor planning mankind has ever seen.

 
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