Months After Harvey’s Record Rains, Texas Sliding into Drought

January 26, 2018

Fortunately I have recent interviews with Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon to parse the mixed signals.

Climate Signals:

Billy Bob Brown has been farming in the Amarillo area for nearly half a century, and this is the longest dry spell he’s ever seen.

The region hasn’t received measurable rainfall in more than 100 days, according to the National Weather Service, and Brown is worried about the fate of his crops. He already can’t grow corn because it’s been so dry.

The Texas Panhandle has become ground zero in a drought that has crept into much of the state just five months after Hurricane Harvey — including areas that suffered massive flooding during the storm.

More than 40 percent of Texas is now in a moderate to severe drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor. That’s compared to 4 percent on Aug. 29, a few days after Harvey slammed into the South Texas coast.

August was the wettest month in the state in 124 years, but every month since then — aside from December — has been considerably dry, he said.

Part of Beaumont, which saw nearly 50 inches of rain when Harvey stalled over southeast Texas as a tropical storm, is now in a moderate drought.

Climate change is driving the extreme swings in rainfall totals, said State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

While annual rainfall totals may not change much overall, he said climate models show that storms will become less frequent and more intense.

“That means we end up with drier stretches in between,” Nielsen-Gammon said. And those dry spells will be worse, too, thanks to higher temperatures, which bring more evaporation, he added.

Wentzel said the state’s persistent dryness can also be attributed to the La Niña weather pattern that developed last year in the Pacific Ocean, which brought above-average temperatures and below-average rainfall to North America.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel industry puts even greater demands on finite aquifers.

Texas Tribune:

Charles Phillips was in his pasture one day last year when he heard the sound. At 85, Phillips doesn’t hear as well as he used to, but he had no problem picking up the unmistakable squeal of a drill boring through rock. That’s odd, he thought. Why would my neighbor be drilling a water well?

He followed the sound west across one of his pastures, where a couple of black Angus cows and quarter horses were grazing, to the neighboring fence line. There, his suspicions were confirmed.

Phillips counted a dozen new water wells being drilled. The ruckus continued for a week and a half until the work crew — five men and three trucks — moved on to drill a dozen wells at another spot about a third of a mile to the southwest.

Like many folks in the parched oil patch north of Big Spring, Phillips had taken notice of the football field-sized pits of water popping up at the edges of cotton fields, as well as the fat, serpentine water lines crisscrossing the county roadways. All signs pointed to the possibility that someone was developing his neighborhood as a water source for the fracking bonanza that has overtaken parts of the Permian Basin. And if business was good, he figured, it would be bad for him, his wife, Loyce, and their neighbors.


“It all happened before we knew what was going on. It was said and done before anybody could do anything about it,” Charles told me when I met him and Loyce at their brown-brick, ’70s-style home one morning this September. Their 19-acre property is one of about 130 homes on ranchettes just north of Big Spring. About 40 miles northeast of Midland, the neighborhood happens to sit where two vast underground caches meet. In the center of Howard County, the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies parts of eight states, approaches its southernmost limit and the Permian Basin, one of the richest oil fields in the world, finds its northern fringe.

Though the Phillipses live only about 4 miles from town, municipal water lines don’t run here. Like their neighbors, they instead rely on individual wells that tap the Ogallala for drinking, cooking and doing laundry. Once considered an inexhaustible resource, the Ogallala has been severely depleted by decades of pumping to grow crops on the High Plains. Recharge from rainfall occurs so slowly that on the human timescale, the Ogallala will never recover.

Concerned that the new wells could lower their water table, Charles and Loyce gathered signatures from 72 of their neighbors asking their local water conservation district to “investigate and help stop the overuse” of water in the area.

It’s virtually unheard-of to challenge industry in the heart of the West Texas oil patch. And like most people in the Big Spring area, the Phillipses have personal connections to the oil business. Charles worked 24 years in the warehouse at the local oil refinery before becoming a rancher. When Loyce was young, her brothers worked on oil rigs to pay their college tuition.

“These guys,” as it turns out, were West Texas H2O, a Midland-based company run by Michael Grella, a former oilman. At the time the Phillipses’ petition was filed in late 2016, the company operated in five West Texas counties and owned or leased 20,000 acres in Howard County alone. In April, the company was acquired by GlobeLTR Energy, which has since changed its name to Gravity Oilfield Services.

In this arid, mostly treeless part of the state, where a little under 20 inches of rain falls each year, the proliferation of fracked wells has also created a vast demand for water. Hydraulic fracturing, as the name implies, requires water — and lots of it. In a typical frack job, millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, are pumped under high pressure to fracture the rock and release oil and gas. To supply the thousands of wells drilled every year in the Permian Basin, West Texas H2O and other commercial water companies have struck deals with landowners to mine groundwater and then pipe it to earthen, tarp-lined holding pits, where the water is then moved by pipe and truck to fracking sites.

In 2010, an estimated 100 million gallons of water were used for fracking in Howard County alone. By 2015, that number had already increased tenfold to nearly 1 billion gallons, according to the Texas Water Development Board.

This flurry of frack-related water pumping isn’t limited to Howard County. Last year, 30 billion gallons of water were used for fracking in the Permian Basin. Energy research firm IHS Markit predicts that number will rise to 100 billion gallons by 2020. That’s enough water to fill the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium 128 times. The rush on groundwater is playing out in small towns all across the Permian Basin, where crude abounds but water is scarce. Near Van Horn, in far West Texas, a land baron is planning to pump 5.4 million gallons of water daily for oil production, raising the ire of nearby farmers and environmentalists who worry the pumping will drain the spring-fed Balmorhea State Park. Near Marfa, a water company is preparing to pipe 8 million gallons of water a day for 20 years to oil rigs, which would consume 2 to 3 percent of groundwater resources in the desert-like area.

3 Responses to “Months After Harvey’s Record Rains, Texas Sliding into Drought”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    + Traffic fatalities increase in Texas due to shale boom
    + Toxic air quality at Texas playgrounds near gas sites
    + Fracking health and safety impacts in Pennsylvania and Texas
    + Arsenic found in groundwater near Texas fracking sites

    Check it out => Shale Gas Bulletin Ireland

  2. Sir Charles Says:

    Oil companies are on track to produce a record 10 million barrels of crude oil a day as hydraulic fracturing operations use more sand, water and pumping horsepower than ever before. The fracking boom is boosting oil companies in Texas but raising environmental concerns. =>

  3. A more precise drought index than the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Penman–Monteith method, has been adopted by the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. Requiring large amounts of data such as solar radiation, temperature, wind speed and relative humidity, it’s not as practical for large areas.

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