Our Water Matters

Troubled waters of West Texas

Have you heard about the deadly water that’s been spewing out of the ground since 2003, forming an enormous, toxic pond near the town of Imperial? It’s located off Highway 1053 about 25 miles north of Fort Stockton, and the locals ironically call it a “lake.” But it’s no lake. It’s a flowing well known as Sloan Blair No. 1 and it’s so poisonous that the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District had to fence off the area for public safety. The briny water, which is several times saltier than the Gulf of Mexico and emits harmful levels of numerous gasses, can hardly be considered naturally occurring. So what seems to be the trouble?

It would appear that this well may be one of many drilled in the area by wildcatters back in the 1930s and 40s. When the wells produced no oil, it was not uncommon for the drillers to sign them over to local landowners, who used them as water wells for their crops and livestock. Under Texas law, water wells are the owner’s responsibility. But records from the era are spotty and this has enabled everyone, including the regulatory authorities, to wash their hands of the growing danger. It’s not our problem, they say. It’s the owner’s.

We’re seeing this flowing water because it’s above ground. But we need to be concerned about the shallow aquifers below because there’s no reason to believe that the same toxic water isn’t mixing with other water beneath the surface. In fact, the rapid deterioration in water quality would seem to indicate a new phenomenon, since landowners used such wells for agriculture and ranching just a few decades back. While Sloan Blair No. 1 and other flowing wells need to be plugged right away, the problem goes much deeper. What is evident at the surface — greater volumes of water emerging year by year as the quality of that water worsens — is a clear sign of growing pressure in the subsurface.

So where is all the pressure coming from? The most logical source is the injection of produced water from unconventional oil and gas recovery, which has exploded in recent decades. This water is “produced” when operators inject massive amounts of it laced with chemicals and sand into the ground under tremendous pressure to crack open or “fracture” the shale and release the hydrocarbons. In the Permian Basin, this injected water (along with water that was extant in the shattered shale) returns to the surface along with the released oil and gas at a ratio of about four barrels of water for every barrel of oil. The vast majority of this produced water, also known as saltwater, is then reinjected under tremendous pressure into much deeper formations called “saltwater disposal” wells. 

The sheer volumes of produced water may provide further clues as to what’s driving this relatively sudden increase in pressure. Companies in neighboring New Mexico continue to dispose of an estimated 1.5 million barrels of produced water in Texas every day. If you add that to the produced water that local operators are injecting, the total can reach up to 15 million barrels or more per day. This growing pressure could explain the increased flow of unnaturally toxic water blasting sky-high out of manmade holes used formerly to water crops and livestock. You can plug these flowing wells. But if we accept that the pressure in the formations used for saltwater disposal will only build, then we must also accept that this water is going to continue emerging somewhere, perhaps even in the aquifers that provide our drinking water. 

So what’s to be done? Rather than wasting more time expecting our outdated regulatory framework to catch up, we need to design a solution that addresses the underlying problem: industrial wastewater. Perhaps we can take inspiration from our great state’s past.

The issues confronting the Permian Basin are not so terribly different from the challenges facing Galveston Bay in the late 1960s, where water quality had become severely degraded by industrial activity. In response, the Texas Legislature created the Gulf Coast Authority (GCA) in 1969. Its establishment was not only visionary because it preceded federal passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972; it was also groundbreaking because it solved the liability issues associated with wastewater and spearheaded a then-new concept called “regional waste management.” The GCA has spent the last 50+ years acquiring, building, and operating regional wastewater treatment centers that make the best use of economies of scale and concentration of expertise to provide reliable waste management and clean up the seaways.

Today’s produced water requires no magical solution. What we need is leadership to apply some of the innovative techniques already proven on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere. Enterprising legislators could make a name for themselves as champions of this approach. Industry leaders would be well advised to embrace it as a solution to some seriously poor optics. And a portion of the federal infrastructure funding could be quickly directed toward solving this obvious emergency. 

Water always wins. And until something definitive is done about produced water, its noxious, hazardous flows will go right on winning. Today, tomorrow, the next day and the next…

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as board chairman of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He earns his living as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]