Rise in earthquakes prompts local concern over health of water resources

Neta Rhyne, an activist advocating for the preservation of San Solomon Springs, reviews letters she’s written over the past seven years to the Texas Railroad Commission protesting the establishment of more deep injection wells in Reeves County. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

FAR WEST TEXAS — A recent increase in earthquake frequency recorded by the United States Geological Survey in Culberson and Reeves counties has some local citizens concerned about whether seismic activity could negatively impact groundwater quality and the flow of San Solomon Springs. 

The basis of activists’ concerns is that an earthquake could lessen or stop spring flow entirely as well as contaminate fresh potable water if it were to come in contact with fracking-produced wastewater, which is pumped into the ground using a technique called deep well injection. 

“If these springs disappear, it could possibly be forever,” said Neta Rhyne, a local activist who fights the establishment of more deep injection wells in Reeves County by filing protest letters with the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

Deep well injection is known to cause earthquakes due to the depths of the wells and their connectivity to fault lines, according to the USGS. Whether or not an earthquake could impact spring flow depends on the magnitude and location of the event, said Andrew Keese, spokesperson for the RRC.

A 2021 study done in conjunction with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and the Southwest Research Institute concluded that the origins to all six springs in the San Solomon Springs system are located west and northwest of San Solomon Springs — an area with frequent seismic activity, according to the USGS’ earthquake monitoring program. 

The world’s largest spring-fed pool, Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale, is supplied with water by San Solomon Springs, the largest of several springs in the area, formed by subsurface geologic faults. More than 15 million gallons of fresh water flow from the spring a day. In addition to providing a recreational oasis in the desert — Balmorhea attracts thousands of visitors each year — the springs are home to species of endangered fish and help sustain local wildlife.

The springs have been used for farming irrigation as early as the 1870s, and an active canal system allows local farmers to grow alfalfa, cotton and more. The Civilian Conservation Corporation built the pool in the 1930s, and it opened its doors to the public in 1968. The San Solomon Springs are located in the Davis Mountains range, a historically seismically active area, originally formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. 

On December 27, 2021, a magnitude 4.5 earthquake occurred in Martin County, 27 miles northeast of Midland —  it was powerful enough to be felt across Texas and New Mexico. While it did not cause major damage, it was one of the strongest recorded in West Texas in the past decade. Just before the significant earthquake, the RRC ordered an indefinite suspension of deep well injection disposal effective Dec. 31 for four counties near Midland-Odessa. While the ban did not apply to Culberson or Reeves counties, activists, including Rhyne, said the ban was a step in the right direction toward lessening the impacts of fracking in the region.

Brewster, Culberson, Hudspeth and Reeves counties all lie within the oil-rich Permian basin in a subregion called the southern Delaware Basin. According to the RRC, there are a total of 89 deep injection wells, or saltwater disposal wells, in the Northern Culberson-Reeves Seismic Response Area — a designation established by the RRC which allows them to coordinate with the local oil and gas industry to “reduce seismic hazard.”

There has been an increase in seismicity in this response area since 2009, said Dr. Alexandros Savvaidis, research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology and leader of the TexNet Seismic Observatory and the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research. TexNet operates a number of earthquake monitoring stations in West Texas in Brewster, Culberson and Reeves counties, including a station installed at Balmorhea State Park. Savvaidis said he was unaware of any peer review publications studying potential earthquake impacts on San Solomon Springs.

From 1931 to 2008, only one earthquake occurred with a magnitude of 4.0 or greater in the area. From December 2020 to the present, there have been 13 earthquakes of 4.0 magnitude or greater, said Savvaidis. Six of these 4.0 magnitude or greater earthquakes were experienced in a one-month period from September to October 2021, “an unprecedented frequency of significant earthquakes in a localized area of Texas,” according to the RRC.

“The RRC staff’s analysis of available information has determined that [saltwater disposal] well injection is likely contributing to seismic activity in this area,” says their website.

Rhyne, who has been concerned about the seismic activity for years, has been a Toyahvale resident since 1984. She co-owns Funky Little Dive Shop and Toyahvale Desert Oasis with her husband Darrel, who served as the superintendent of Balmorhea State Park for a number of years. They live on 400 acres adjacent to the park; Rhyne jokes she’s so close she can throw a rock in the pool from her front yard.

Both of Rhyne’s businesses are located across the road from the pool, and have been economically affected by the park’s closures in the past. A 1996 earthquake originating in Marathon, the first in West Texas in 64 years, had a 5.6 magnitude and damaged their buildings. The pool was closed because it turned murky white, she said.

“I’m just an individual who’s experiencing the harm that all this is causing and trying to protect our livelihood,” said Rhyne. 

Neta Rhyne in front of her business Toyahvale Desert Oasis, which is located across the road from Balmorhea State Park. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

Her close ties to the park, where all three of her kids learned to swim in the pool, led her to begin seriously protesting fracking wastewater disposal wells in 2016 out of a desire to preserve the precious natural resource. Rhyne reviews pending disposal well permits, which are published in her local paper the Pecos Enterprise, and files protest letters to the RRC when she believes a proposed well is too close to San Solomon Springs. She has been met with a lot of pushback from the RRC and attorneys of oil and gas companies, she said.

“When I first started protesting this, I’m labeled a troublemaker, tree hugger, water protector. Don’t we all need to be tree huggers and water protectors? I mean, we can’t exist without water,” said Rhyne. 

Rhyne has driven to Austin to attend RRC preliminary hearings on proposed disposal wells, but said the legal, regulatory environment is intimidating, and she has continually been dismissed as “not an affected person,” which effectively tosses out her protest. The RRC defines an “affected person” as “a person who has suffered or will suffer actual injury or economic damage other than as a member of the general public or a competitor.” Affected persons may also include adjacent property owners, county and city clerks. 

In a 2019 letter addressed to the RRC protesting the establishment of a disposal well by High Roller Wells LLC, Rhyne wrote about the pool’s 2018 structural failure, arguing the damage could be a result of cumulative structural damage caused by low-level quakes, despite Texas Parks and Wildlife’s insistence that was not the case. TPWD later announced, after months of geotechnical evaluation, the damage was caused by decades of erosion from spring flow. 

Rhyne and Gibson said they have been successful half a dozen times in protesting potential disposal wells, but most of the time permits are granted. Once, when Rhyne recruited friends in Saragosa and launched a grassroots effort to gather 300 letters protesting a disposal well, the application for the well was withdrawn. But for the most part, said Rhyne, she hasn’t had much luck mobilizing her community. 

“A lot of people are concerned, but they won’t voice their concerns,” said Rhyne. “You have to stop and think in these small communities, these oil companies bring in jobs. You don’t want to jeopardize who’s putting food on your table.” 

Coyne Gibson, an independent researcher in the area with a background in the oil and gas industry, has been monitoring deep injection wells for the past seven years and attending railroad commission meetings with other concerned citizen scientists. Gibson monitors seismic activity using USGS data, reviews permits being issued from the Texas Railroad Commission and files protests whenever he feels a well is proposed in an area where it may cause environmental harm, like Rhyne. 

He said he has directly witnessed increased seismic activity in the region as a result of fracking and fracking-related operations. If earthquakes were to continue on their current trend, it could result in significant impacts for area springs, he said. 

“As these seismic events occur, particularly as they get larger in magnitude, the risk of disrupting the deep fracture systems that feed aquifer water to the spring systems can be impacted,” said Gibson. “The most extreme case would be that an event occurred with sufficient energy to disrupt spring flow to San Solomon springs.”

Without the draw of Balmorhea State Park, area businesses would likely be negatively affected, causing ripple effects in the local economy. 

“If something were to happen, such that San Solomon Spring stopped flowing, you have the loss of that oasis and then the corresponding cascade of economic impact,” said Gibson.

Local citizens are concerned about whether an uptick in seismic activity could negatively impact the flow of San Solomon Springs, which provides over 15 million gallons of fresh water a day to the Balmorhea State Park pool. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

There are also concerns of potential water contamination and structural damage, said Gibson.

“You can feel these [earthquakes] as far south as into the Davis Mountains,” said Gibson. “It’s not necessarily that there’s a huge earthquake and something falls down. It can be the case that over a sufficient period of time, through a series of small magnitude events, it creates cumulative damage in the structure.”

Saltwater disposal wells are run by a range of operators, from independent contractors to publicly traded companies. Landowners can even repurpose a well on their property and turn it into a saltwater disposal well by buying up cheap used equipment and going through a simple permitting process, said Gibson. There are a number of brokers that put independent contractors in touch with operators looking for disposal sites. Gibson is advocating for better oversight and tighter regulatory processes with respect to permitting and monitoring of fracking operations and deep injection wells, he said.

In October 2021, the RRC announced it would work with oil and gas companies to reduce the frequency of earthquakes in the Northern Culberson Reeves Seismic Response Area and come up with a seismic response action plan. The plan, they said, would result in no more 3.5 magnitude or greater earthquakes within 18 months of implementation. The RRC said its staff would review earthquake frequency, magnitude and disposal volume in the area. 

“An industry group is currently developing an operator-led response plan. The RRC hopes to have an agreed plan of action in place soon,” said Andrew Keese, spokesperson with the Railroad Commission of Texas. 

Because injected fluid is sometimes hydraulically connected to faults, causing induced earthquakes, the many faults in the Northern Culberson Reeves Seismic Response Area and surrounding areas could affect the flow of San Solomon Springs if they were to shift. 

Dr. Savvaidis said based on the current seismicity, the primary area of concern is the Grisham Fault zone, which runs through Reeves County. The significant length of the fault can equate to a high magnitude earthquake if the fault slips all at once versus in smaller parts. 

Using a sophisticated network of fault maps, the USGS is able to model potential outcomes of seismic events in order to help communities plan for emergencies. In an earthquake scenario mapped by the USGS the West Lobo fault, located in Jeff Davis County, is the epicenter of a theoretical 7.2 magnitude quake, with a high probability for structural damage in the county and surrounding areas. 

County lines are arbitrary compared to the large-scale forces like a region’s geology and hydrology, said Gibson. And while the Delaware Basin is rich in hydrocarbon shales, the processes used to extract hydrocarbons is water-intensive, and competes for water resources with populations using it for agriculture, he said. On average, for every one barrel of crude oil extracted, about seven to 10 barrels, or 280 to 400 gallons, of wastewater are produced, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation.

“That’s a pretty insidious loop, especially in a landscape that is a transitional desert,” said Gibson.