The Delaware Basin and a lack of oversight
The Delaware Basin exists within a larger bioregion known as the Chihuahaun Desert, an arid region that receives less than 19-inches of rainfall on an average annual basis. With the exception of Balmorhea Lake, an open water resource fed by the San Solomon Springs, in Reeves County, there is no open water in this region. The majority of the water in the region is sourced from underground, minor aquifers, which exist within fractured igneous rock, fed by rainfall in the recharge zones in the mountains surrounding the Delaware Basin. Water is a scarce, and precious resource within the region, and the majority of the water used for human survival, wildlife, and agricultural purposes is derived from these minor aquifers.
The Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), and the associated area underground water districts plan for, and quantify water use. Oil & Gas activity, oddly, does not exist as a category for water use, and instead falls under a broader category as a mining activity. In the region, TWDB and county underground water conservation districts show near zero use of area water resources in support of oil & gas activity or mining. The requirements for supporting development of the southern Delaware basin are not accounted for in any of the current, or forward-looking plans – known as Desired Future Conditions (DFC’s). Given that the development of a single 4-bore well pad consumes on average 42,000,000 gallons of water (about 129 acre-feet), and a single producer, in this example, the “Alpine High” field may contain 2000 – 4000 wells, using the conservative averages, from 64,500 acre-feet, to as much as 129,000 acre-feet of water (billions of gallons) could be required to complete these wells. This is a fraction of the total water required for the full development of the entire southern Delaware Basin.
The water used during fracturing is “flowed back,” after the fracturing process is complete. That water is chemically contaminated with the materials used during well stimulation, including acids, surfactants, anti-bacterial and anti-fungals, corrosion inhibitors, and many other harmful chemicals. The flow-back water must be collected, and either treated to remove the chemical contaminants, for surface disposal or municipal disposal, or it must be injected into deep-well disposal, in which case that water is essentially lost from the hydrologic cycle forever.
In some production operations, there are operators who recycle this water, and re-use it during subsequent fracturing operations. While this is possible, and a rising trend, it is not ubiquitous in the industry. This also requires local storage of the water, typically in so-called “frac ponds,” which are excavated pits, with synthetic liners to prevent loss of the contaminated water into the groundwater table. Leaks in the liners are common, and leakage of contaminated water is common.
Groundwater contamination can occur due to faulty well casings, faulty well cementing operations, spills, and related well-head operations. Despite best efforts, there are thousands of documented cases of groundwater contamination related to oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing activities.
Statistically, with over eight producers, and thousands of wells in the Delaware Basin, groundwater contamination from these activities is more than just a remote possibility.
A specific concern lies in operations within Reeves County – Balmorhea State Park, Balmorhea Lake, San Solomon Springs, and interconnectivity to an underground cave and spring system, Phantom Springs, are at risk of loss from oil and gas development in the southern Delaware Basin.
These resources are unique, in the isolated arid Chihuahuan Desert. They are literal oases in this landscape, serving wildlife, including migratory birds, recreational needs for Texans, and they provide drinking and agricultural water sources for the community of Balmorhea and surrounding area.