A Texas City Resorts to Building a Water Reclamation Plant; Meanwhile, Oil and Gas Companies Get a Free Pass to Groundwater
In Big Spring, Texas, residents will soon recycle their wastewater into drinking water, thanks to a new $12 million water reclamation project. Treating what is essentially sewage, the so-called “toilet to tap” method faces publicity challenges. Not only will the water from this plant recirculate to Big Spring, after extensive treatment, water will supply the nearby oil towns of Midland and Odessa. Built by the Colorado River Municipal Water District (CRMWD), the plant will only supply 1.5 to 2 million gallons of water per day (compared to the 36 million that the district uses daily). To me, this seems to show just how scarce water resources are in the district, which includes the phrase “Think Before You Waste!” in its press release logo.
Which is why it irks me that, in Texas, oil and gas companies continue to use water at their leisure. While residents pay the price for building the reclamation plant—CRMWD estimates a 5 to 10 cent increase per 1,000 gallons of CRMWD water for the next few years to help pay for the plant and another groundwater well — oil and gas companies continue to use as much freshwater as they want. The industry is exempt from most state water regulations and can extract groundwater as long as they own the land above it. Only since February of this year have companies even had to disclose exactly how much water they use, as researchers try to predict the impact fracking will have on the state’s water resources. Texas’s water use for fracking is expected to more than double by 2020.
Potential groundwater contamination is another concern. Two studies this year, one by Myers et al. in the journal Ground Water and another by Warner et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have highlighted that the question is no longer if fracking will contaminate vital aquifers, but when. Fluid that doesn’t return to the surface remains underground, where it can migrate.
After fracking, 25 to 75 percent of fracking fluid returns to the surface, contaminated with radioactive compounds, salts, volatile organic compounds and metals. Conventional wastewater treatment plants cannot remove radioactivity and other fracking chemicals, making deep well injection a popular choice for disposal. This water is not returned to the hydrological cycle and cannot be used again.
The oil and gas industry tends to downplay its use of water. But in one Texas county, water use for “mining” (almost entirely fracking) topped out at forty percent. In a place where water is so scarce, residents are making sacrifices to conserve water. The oil and gas industry isn’t. Take action to ban fracking here.
Katherine Boehrer is a Food & Water Watch summer communications intern and a junior at Cornell University.