Parks department launches intense monitoring as Apache drills near Balmorhea springs
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is so concerned about a plan to drill thousands of oil wells around Balmorhea State Park in West Texas that it has embarked on an unprecedented environmental study of the springs that feed the park’s famous pool, provides drinking water for thousands of people and supports one of the most sensitive ecologies in Texas.
The study of the San Solomon Springs aims to monitor the effects of oil and gas drilling by Apache Corp. of Houston, which less than a year ago announced a major discovery, dubbed Alpine High, across 350,000 acres of desert surrounding the park. Parks biologists, hydrologists, geologists and administrators have mounted an in-depth, multi-year effort to monitor plants, fish, insects and water.
They plan to cordon off habitat, overturn rocks, get out nets and count samples from every important species that depend on the San Solomon and other local springs, hoping that the baseline data will hold Apache responsible if anything goes wrong. Brent Leisure, the state parks director, said he could not remember ever launching a similar effort in another of the state’s 95 parks, historic sites or natural areas.
“We have a rare and endangered resource there at the San Solomon Springs,” Leisure said. “There’s no doubt about it. It’s an oasis. We just want to make sure it’s protected.”
Balmorhea State Park and the Alpine High find sit between the Davis and Apache mountain ranges, part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America and the most biologically diverse in the Western Hemisphere. It rains rarely. Water, across the region, is largely available only via freshwater springs from local and regional aquifers.
The San Solomon Springs, among others, support more than a dozen rare, threatened or endangered species, from the Comanche Springs pupfish to the Headwater catfish to the Pecos sunflower. Without the aquifers, migratory fish and birds could not survive in their current numbers.
Water flow at the San Solomon has already begun dropping, likely due to farm, ranch and town use, from about 34 cubic feet per second a century ago to 26 since 2000. Scientists say rainwater has a limited ability to refill area aquifers, and worry any more demand could dry up the springs.
Apache, in response, touted its environmental track record and said it is drilling salt water wells to avoid the use of freshwater in hydraulic fracturing. The company added that it plans, eventually, to recycle and reuse the millions of gallons of water that come up the well with oil and gas, which would reduce its need to drill for groundwater.
The company has also contracted with area scientists to watch for water contamination and map out area aquifers. “Apache understands the challenge of operating in water-scarce regions,” spokesman Joe Brettell said in an email.
‘Plenty to be scared’
Apache said in September that it had discovered more than 15 billion barrels of oil and gas in a far southern section of the Permian Basin. It plans to drill as many as 3,000 wells over the next 20 years.
Those plans drew immediate criticism from environmentalists and area residents, who worried drilling would contaminate the aquifers, spoil the park pool, drive away visitors and overwhelm their city of 500 with construction workers, truck drivers and oil rig roughnecks. The parks department first said it had no evidence that Apache’s drilling plans threatened Balmorhea State Park or its spring-fed pool, before admitting it had done no research on the issue.
Last fall, however, Parks and Wildlife officials began privately gathering a working group that included scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Texas and The Nature Conservancy.
The scientists were worried about the area’s ecology before Apache arrived because of increased consumption of water by local communities and farms, among other effects, said Gary Garrett, a research biologist at UT-Austin and member of the working group. Oil drilling was the least of their concerns - companies had long tried to find oil and gas there, and largely failed.
“Parks and Wildlife hadn’t done anything because it wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Now it is, and it’s huge,” Garrett said.“There’s plenty to be scared about.”
Apache needs water to produce oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing - the process of drilling oil wells horizontally and pumping water into them until the rock breaks, thousands of feet underground - uses 2 million to 5 million gallons of water per well, or as much as 15 billion gallons for Apache’s 3,000 wells, according to the monitoring plan created by the parks department.
The Balmorhea region is webbed with freshwater aquifers, but parks officials have grown concerned that if Apache taps any of the local aquifers it could reduce flow at the San Solomon Springs, since they are likely interconnected underground. And spring flow is key to survival for the region’s rare local species. For example, the Comanche Springs pupfish prefers shallow marshes, which lose water as spring flow declines. The Pecos sunflower, too, relies on wet spring-fed soil.
But the “larger threat,” the monitoring plan said, “may be posed by salt water disposal.” Millions of barrels of salt water, trapped underground with oil and gas, spout from the wells with the fossil fuels. To dispose of that wastewater, companies often inject it thousands of feet below ground.
The parks department worries that water, high in salts, heavy metals and arsenic, could migrate through faults, fractures or abandoned wells to contaminate aquifers, springs, surface water and surrounding habitats.
The parks plan calls on the working group to measure spring flows and aquifer levels continuously, routinely sample water quality, count and monitor key wildlife species, investigate how the aquifers work and identify abandoned wells.
It also asks Apache to buttress its own practices: report fracking water sources and volumes to the scientists, inject wastewater only into aquifers already holding saltwater, build steel rather than fiberglass wastewater containment tanks, measure the underground pressure of wastewater injection wells and turn drilling lights toward the ground, shielding the West Texas sky from the bright lights.
Apache is considering the recommendations. It has already promised to keep drilling out of the park and the city of Balmorhea, use the industry’s most careful practices in setting well pipe and protective cement casing and find alternative sources of frack water, such as salt water wells.
And it’s making progress, said Brettell, the spokesman. The company used San Solomon water for one well, last year. It’s now buying water from area landowners, but has found a salt water formation with a “substantial amount of non-potable water” that should serve operations long term.
Apache also hopes to reuse all of its wastewater in fracking operations soon. It’s building water recycling tanks and facilities now.
But environmentalists and residents worry the parks department is reacting too late to save the springs. Neta Rhyne, who lives across the street from the park and has organized opposition to Apache operations, said the time for these studies was before Apache started drilling.
“We’re thankful Parks & Wildlife is on it, and monitoring,” she said. But she’s convinced something will go wrong and Apache will then pack up and go home.
“What are we left with?” she asked. “Nobody is going to be held accountable.”