Sucking Up Water and Sand in the Quest for Natural Gas

On a bridge 10 miles outside of Saint Jo, Texas, a small, sleepy town an hour and a half drive northwest of Dallas, a handful of locals have gathered on a July afternoon to look at a sand mine being built off a remote country road. Rolling hills dotted with pockets of dense trees fill the horizon in this area near the border of Cooke and Montague counties.

Although the sun is sinking in the west, it still hurls heat, and the wind is like breath from a furnace. Colossal grasshoppers leap in the tall, dry grass, flickering and then landing with tiny thuds. Barn swallows nesting under the bridge fly in long, ecstatic swoops back and forth to a nearby canopy of green trees, their black bodies contrasting against the sun-poached sky.

Mountain Creek runs under the bridge and along the west perimeter of the sand mine site. Now the creek bed's bottom is dry and cuts through the land like stretched taffy, but when water runs through, it feeds into the Red River, which dives south into Texas just a mile north of here. Locals are worried about what is being fed into the creek with the construction of the sand mine just 50 yards away. They take a certain ownership-by-birthright approach to the countryside.

They lean over the guardrail, peering down to see where deer tracks are pressed into the soft sand, then look up at the sand mine under construction. Fifty acres have been bulldozed, once-green pastures stripped bare, trees razed and left in forgotten heaps of dried timber. A pit the size of a football field has been hollowed out of the ground, two stories deep, like an inverted welt on the land, with bulldozers now idle, yet ready to dig deeper and wider.

Wylie Harris makes his living off this land, as did four generations of family before him. Like many folks out here in Cooke County, he raises livestock and therefore depends on water for not only sustenance, but for income too.

"Just down the slope in back of the house there's a hand-dug well lined with limestone rocks that dates to my grandparents' time," Harris says. "For us, growing up, that well was a risk of snakebite or drowning, not a water source. But to the first generations of my family to live here, it was many long days of hard and dangerous work in exchange for a perpetual source of water."

The relentless drought baking Texas drives home the importance of water wells like his. Each week Harris carefully estimates how much water and grass are left on his land to sustain his cattle. Wearing jeans, a white button-down shirt, boots and a straw hat, his coarse beard contrasting with his youthful eyes, Harris is slow and thoughtful in choosing his words.

"I have one week for grazing and two weeks of water left in the pond. After that, for the first time in over 50 years, we'll have to use ground water," Harris says.

By now, the pond is dry. All across Texas, craters dot pastures where stock ponds have been reduced to cracked mud. According to Texas State Climatologist John Gammon, Texas is in the most severe one-year drought since records have been kept.

Grazing land is parched, meaning farmers have to truck in hay, which in turn has resulted in a spike in the cost of hay. Ranchers statewide are now selling cattle they can no longer afford to nourish. Many have resorted to well water to keep alive what's left, putting added pressure on the aquifers from which the wells draw. With no rain to replenish them, the aquifers are at all-time low levels.

"The general trend is a 20-foot drop in the Trinity Aquifer. But in some areas, as much as 80 feet," says Dr. Bob Patterson, president of the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District.

Harris knows that eventually the grass will grow and the ponds will refill. What he does worry about, however, is the Trinity Aquifer a few hundred feet below. Even if the pressure from all of those farm pumps subsides, EOG Resources will soon need to pump large amounts of water for its sand mine just two miles from Harris' land because they don't just take the sand, they wash it. With the mine's capacity to produce 2,700 tons of sand a day, there's a lot of sand to wash.

EOG — formerly Enron Oil and Gas — needs the sand near Saint Jo for its primary business of fracking, the controversial method of extracting gas from tight shale formations by fracturing the shale. As the fourth-largest owner of gas wells over the Barnett Shale, EOG has a critical need for sand used in the process.

While Dallas leaders debate whether to allow gas companies to drill over the rich shale formations below the city and have appointed a special commission to review air pollution issues and other hazards, Harris and the residents in Cooke and Montague counties are at the other end of the fracking spectrum, fighting for their already waning water supply.

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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.