Business / Environmental Policy
August 13, 2013
Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian has a startling article on what may be a common occurrence in Texas and other parts of the US:
Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.
Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.
In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools. In Barnhart’s case, the well appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.
It is important to note that fracking is not the only problem here, though it is a major one. What this story is also about is decades of sprawl and unchecked resource extraction.
As I’ve bolded above, Goldenberg notes that where water is being rationed, people are barred from watering their lawns or filling pools. Yet, the lawns themselves are a significant source of the problem. At some point we were convinced that every home needed this lush, green lawn, despite the fact that the grasses were non-native and required an unreasonable amount of chemical fertilizer and water to keep alive. And, this isn’t describing Barnhart, specifically, but American sprawl, generally, we’ve built these communities of suburban homes and McMansions with pools that are not designed for life in the desert. All of it has contributed to this current problem.
Fracking is a powerful drain on water supplies. In adjacent Crockett county, fracking accounts for up to 25% of water use, according to the groundwater conservation district. But Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, argues fracking is not the only reason Texas is going dry – and nor is the drought. The latest shocks to the water system come after decades of overuse by ranchers, cotton farmers, and fast-growing thirsty cities.
“We have large urban centres sucking water out of west Texas to put on their lands. We have a huge agricultural community, and now we have fracking which is also using water,” she said. And then there is climate change.
West Texas has a long history of recurring drought, but under climate change, the south-west has been experiencing record-breaking heatwaves, further drying out the soil and speeding the evaporation of water in lakes and reservoirs. Underground aquifers failed to regenerate. “What happens is that climate change comes on top and in many cases it can be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back, but the camel is already overloaded,” said Hayhoe.
We’ve seen how climate change and government mismanagement of water played a role in leading to the Syrian revolution. And how the 2013 drought is pushing New Mexico farmers to extreme measures in search of water. It seems inevitable that unless there is some cooperation among neighboring communities and a political solution to better manage water resources and not allow the world’s most profitable industry to suck towns dry, there are going to be some very angry people here in the US, as well.
- Texas town runs out of water after using it for fracking (treehugger.com)
- A Texan tragedy: ample oil, no water (theguardian.com)