Drought, oil industry take a toll on University Lands ranchers

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Swaths of West Texas ranches dotted with cattle, sheep, rattlesnakes and cacti have never been much to look at, Sammy Hooper says with a laugh. Nevertheless, the 74-year-old rancher and his wife Mima Hooper say the recent drought and influx of the oil and gas industry have greatly impacted their operation. 

The boom of the oil industry in the Permian Basin and severe drought have taken a toll on the couple’s ranching operation. The Hoopers are one of 112 grazing lessees on University Lands’ 2.1 million acres. The drought will break eventually, but unless University administration takes some interest in preserving the natural environment, the Hoopers’ ranching future remains bleak, he said.

“We’ve spent 20 years or so ranching on University property,” Sammy Hooper said. “We’re sickened by what’s happened in the past five years.”

The problems began with the onset of drought several years ago, and the lack of water has been exacerbated by the influx of oil companies in the past two years, Hooper said. Since 2011, the Hoopers’ herd size was reduced by a third. 

“The biggest problems are when the oil field has come in and torn up our water lines, and we’re not even notified about it until it’s too late,” Hooper said. “I’m really worried about this fracking system. They’re using a lot of water for these oil wells, and I just worry they aren’t conserving the water the way they should. If oil is more important than ranching, we’re out.” 

According to Hooper, they have to pump water from deep underground to reach their herds, and the deeper the well, the more expensive it is to pay for the electricity to pump it. 

“Our only source of income is through livestock,” Hooper said. “If we have no water there’s no ranch. There’s no grass, there’s no rain, there’s no ranch.” 

Hooper said he recently tested some of his wells and discovered their levels were too low to water his herd. 

The western part of Texas has seen below average rainfall for the past two years according to Ken Rainwater, director of the Water Resources Center at Texas Tech University. The area received less than a third of its average yearly rainfall in 2011 and didn’t meet its rainfall average last year either, Rainwater said. 

University Lands Executive Director Jim Benson said no lessee has priority to water on University Lands. Benson said oil companies, which usually need millions of gallons of water for fracking wells that crack shale formations in order to extract oil and gas, are required by University Lands to minimize their water use by reusing wastewater. 

“The policy has always been that if we could prove that an oil company damaged a lessee’s well, then that company would be responsible to provide that water to the lessee,” Benson said. 

Hooper said in the past two years there has been a disconnect between how the oil companies and ranchers are supposed to operate and how those relationships interact in reality. 

“In this influx of oil invasion, we have no say,” Hooper said. “We’ve spent our last dime buying leases from the University and they have allowed the oil companies to come in and destroy the land.” 

Torn up water lines are just a small piece of the damage that’s been done, Hooper said.  

Whole pastures are now coated in limestone surface rock called caliche used to create roads for oil field workers. Grass won’t grow on caliche, and its dust coats the grass nearby, making it inedible for cattle, Hooper said. Wildlife such as deer and quail have left the ranch because of oil field traffic, according to Hooper.

“All that to get oil,” Hooper said. “If oil’s more important than the habitat of nature then that’s really messed up.” 

Hooper said ranchers previously received money from University Lands to help cover the cost of damages to their leases, but the money has stopped within the last six months. Benson said the University Lands office has budgeted money to help make improvements in the past, but funding for those projects is not always available. 

He said it is disheartening to see public land damaged by the industry, but he doesn’t have much hope for the situation to change. Hooper said anything short of directives from top university officials will be futile in protecting the grazing lands. 

“The Board of Regents are going to have to lay down the law about what the oil companies can and will do,” Hooper said. “We have talked with the local University people at great length. They apparently have no authority and it looks like their hands are tied.”

UT spokeswoman Karen Adler was unable to say how involved the Board of Regents was in monitoring interaction between ranchers and oil companies.