Texas Drought Conditions and Water Availability

By Thomas DiPaolo, GIS Intern, FracTracker Alliance –

For the last three years, Texas has been experiencing a drought so severe that it has gained media attention around the world; the recurring theme from each media report is that the water use of the oil and natural gas industry is sucking up so much water from the ground that towns like Barnhart are seeing their taps run dry.

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Surface Water

Water data for Texas, owned and operated by the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), defines “reservoir storage” as the total volume of water contained within a reservoir, while “conservation storage” is specifically the volume of water that can be accessed and moved out of the reservoir. For example, the Twin Buttes Reservoir currently has 2,095 acre-feet of water in its reservoir storage, but because it cannot be removed from the reservoir, in terms of conservation storage it is considered “empty.” Twin Buttes is not the only reservoir in this position; Electra Lake, Meredith Lake, and White River Lake are also empty, and Electra Lake has no water at all in its reservoir storage. The average conservation storage of reservoirs statewide is 168,704.64 acre-feet. Ninety-two reservoirs (including the aforementioned) have less than that amount, while six reservoirs have conservation storages in excess of 1 million acre-feet. For reference, a TWDB report from last year found that in 2011 statewide fracking operations used a combined total of 81,500 acre-feet of water, over 26.5 billion gallons. That is almost enough to consume the conservation storage of the ten smallest reservoirs in the state.

The other measure for comparing water quantity is “fullness percentage,” a ratio between a reservoir’s current conservation storage and the maximum volume of water it can hold without flooding, or maximum conservation storage. Any reservoir with no conservation storage, therefore, has a fullness of 0%, while overflowing reservoirs are only 100% full. This means that, in contrast to the four reservoirs with 0% fullness, four other reservoirs have complete fullness. Monticello Reservoir, Mountain Creek Lake, and Squaw Creek Reservoir are all in excess of their conservation storages, but Houston Lake is flooding by the greatest amount, with reservoir storage of 139,409 acre-feet and conservation storage of 128,054 acre-feet. The average reservoir is  56.01% full as of this writing, but 44 of 115 reservoirs have a lower proportion of fullness. The problem here isn’t that every reservoir is under threat: it’s that those reservoirs which are threatened are running on empty.

Water Restrictions

Fig1The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency, publishes a list of drought-affected public water systems and their restrictions, classifying them by “stage” and “priority” (Figure 1). Stage refers to the expected duration of the existing water supply, while priority reflects the degree to which residents’ water usage is being restricted. This means water systems with no immediate threat of their supplies expiring may be applying extreme restrictions to sustain that supply. Water systems in the highest stage of “Emergency” have at most 45 days before their water supplies are exhausted; a priority of “Severe” means the water system has forbidden all outdoor water usage and may limit individual residents’ usage if they believe it’s necessary. At the time of this writing, 442 water systems have instituted voluntary restrictions on water usage, but 44 systems have a Severe priority, and five of those are in a stage of Emergency.

Of those systems, only the White River Municipal Water District appears in the map above within the data layer of public water systems offered by the TCEQ, and it lies within 20 miles of eight different fracking wells1. According to FracFocus.org, these eight wells consumed a combined volume of almost 600,000 gallons of water, or 1.8 acre-feet, when they were first fractured. While that amount may sound low, FracFocus shows 1,557 fracking wells within the state of Texas, and White River is located about 100 miles from the major oil fields of west Texas, where individual wells commonly consumed millions of gallons of water. For eight wells combined, 600,000 gallons is at the bottom of the scale.

FracFocus also notes that these figures do not take into account the amount of fresh water used in drilling. As freshwater becomes scarcer, hydraulic fracturing operations are turning to brackish water, which contains salt or other minerals, and water recycled from previous gas wells: the TWDB estimated that 17,000 of the 81,500 acre-feet of water used in 2011 was either brackish or recycled, and water recycling specifically is on the rise ever since the Texas legislature removed the need to seek permits before recycling water on leased land. FTS International reports that some of its Texas wells have completely switched over to recycled water.

It remains to be seen how soon efforts like this will bring relief to towns like Barnhart.


1. The eight wells in question are Bryant B-1045, etal #4576; Bryant B-1045, etal #4578; Flores, etal #182; Rankin #etal 161; Rankin, etal #172; Wheeler-1046, #4666; Wheeler-1046, #4678; and Williams, etal #4570. Reports on all of them can be found on FracFocus by searching for Crosby County, Texas.