How Fracking Is Drying Up One Unlucky Texas Town

After fracking contractors drilled 104 wells on his land, one Texas farmer was forced to sell 500 cattle because he didn't have enough water to properly care for them.

Fracking in Texas. At least the sunset is beautiful. (Photo: Rich LaSalle/Getty)

Aug 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A staff writer for LiveScience, Doug has written for the He lives in New York City.

If you had to choose between natural gas production or drinking water in your hometown, which would it be?

Some Texas residents feel they haven't been given this choice—and that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is taking more than its fair share of their groundwater, exacerbating the drought problems in an already parched region. The Guardian recently reported on the predicament facing a small town in Barnhart, Texas—which "appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking."

And fracking appears to play a role in many of these water shortages elsewhere in the state. Another 30 towns in the state are expected to run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And about 15 million people are under some form of water rationing, wherein they are prevented from watering their lawns and the like.

Beverly McGuire, a resident of Barnhart, told the Guardian that her wells ran dry soon after fracking started near her property two years ago. Another local rancher, Buck Owens, had to sell all of his 500 cattle and 90 percent of his goats because he didn't have enough water to feed them after fracking contractors drilled 104 wells on his land.

Other nearby residents with their own well water have been selling it for use in fracking, a process by which water and other chemicals are forcefully injected into the ground at high pressure to release pockets of oil and gas. In a nearby town, contractor Larry Baxter estimates he could make $36,000 per month selling water for fracking, he told the Guardian.

When it comes to water, West Texas is under a perfect storm—for lack of a better term (some residents are actually hoping for a hurricane to bring more water to the thirsty region). Water reservoirs have been depleted by years of drought, heatwaves that are becoming more frequent, growing urbanization, and now, fracking.

Climate change likely plays a role in the region's heatwaves and droughts. But to be fair, the area is no stranger to drought. "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," Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told the Guardian.

But fracking adds to the burden. In a nearby county, the process uses up 25 percent of the groundwater, according to the county's groundwater conservation district.

Perhaps ironically (given that climate change and fracking are both taking a toll on water supplies), the natural gas obtained from fracking has promise to be amongst the most efficient of fossil fuels, emitting less carbon dioxide by volume than does oil or coal. But some estimates suggest that the amount of methane that leaks out of fracking wells invalidates its edge as a "cleaner" fuel, since methane is a much more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

Even some environmentalists support fracking since the industry supplies a lot of jobs. A Moody's economist told USA Today that the "exploration of natural gas deposits embedded in shale, followed by oil drilling that began in earnest late in the decade, has created more than 1 million" jobs out of the 2.7 million created nationwide since 2002.

Fracking companies themselves realize the importance of a plentiful water supply. Antero Resources Inc., an energy company backed by New York private-equity firms, recently made news by planning to spend more than $500 million on a pipeline to carry water from the Ohio River into West Virginia and Ohio, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The average well in the Marcellus Shale, a large area rich in oil and natural gas that stretches across the Appalachians in the eastern U.S., requires 4.2 million to five million gallons of water, the Journal reported.

That's enough to supply a town of 42,000 people for one day.