University Lands, legislature and regulators mull water rules

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Deep below the dry dust surface of University Lands is groundwater that breathes life into the ranches, vineyards and oil wells that sit on top of it.

University Lands has a long history of managing its water between many divided interests, Executive Director Jim Benson said, but the recent oil boom in the region has outside regulatory entities concerned about the sustainability of water resources in the area. Bills filed in the Texas Legislature aim to impose more regulations on water extracted by oil and gas companies, while other pending bills would relax existing restrictions.  

“We’re always concerned with water in West Texas — always,” Benson said. “We don’t have any surface water on University Lands. It’s all groundwater, so we’re always concerned.”

Groundwater beneath the University Lands are part of the Ogallala, Cenozoic Pecos Alluvium and Gotham aquifers, Benson said. The exact amount of water the University Lands have in each aquifer is difficult to quantify, he said.

“We have considerable amounts of water, but I can’t tell you the exact amount we have because we haven’t spent the revenue to explore all of it,” Benson said. “As far as a massive study to explore the volumes of water, at this point it would be beyond our ability to budget that.”

The biggest consumers of University Lands water are municipalities, which Benson estimates use approximately 28 million gallons per day. The water isn’t always of the best quality, but is treatable and desirable in the climate where the resource is limited, he said.

“It’s pretty salty,” he said. “It’s fresh. You can drink it, but it doesn’t taste great.”

Up to half of the water consumed by Andrews — a town of about 11,000 people — comes from wells on University Land, said Danny Griffin, director of water production and plant management for the city. Andrews has purchased water from University Lands for more than 50 years and just signed an agreement to extend its contract for another 25 years. Although the price of water from University Lands has increased by 12 percent since 2010 and now must be mixed with surface water to dilute arsenic levels, the deal Andrews and University Lands have worked out is fairly favorable, Griffin said.

“It’s not a bad rate,” he said. “Especially because water’s a scarce resource.”

Energy companies also use freshwater in a process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals to crack shale formations and extract oil and natural gas from deep below the earth’s surface, Benson said.

The University has tried to reduce the impact of these wells on its freshwater supply by requiring the energy companies to reuse water from fracking that would otherwise be pumped back into the ground in a disposal well at a different location. No federal or state laws or regulations force companies to reuse their wastewater if they do not operate on University Lands. 

“We’re trying to minimize the impact of oil and gas activity on the freshwater by utilizing this produced water that would otherwise be disposed of,” Benson said.

The University Lands also implemented its first groundwater management plan this year, which requires any entity drilling a water well on its property to seek approval from University Lands. 

State law requires all entities that use more than 25,000 gallons of water per day, with the exception of oil, gas and mining companies, to seek a permit from a local groundwater conservation district, if one exists, and report the amount of water they withdraw. And while oil and gas companies have to register wells with the groundwater conservation district, they don’t have to account how much water they withdraw, said Cindy Weatherby manager of the Santa Rita Groundwater Conservation District in Reagan County. 

“Oil and gas is our biggest problem right now,” Weatherby said. “There’s no way to put a finger on how much they are impacting us because they’re exempt from reporting.”

The districts are responsible for managing groundwater in the state, but that task is difficult when oil and gas companies don’t have to account for the water they use, Weatherby said. In the past year, her office has been overwhelmed by drilling registrations.

“The registrations come in so fast, I can barely keep up with putting them in the computer,” Weatherby said. “There’s some legislation that might help us. We can only pray.”

A bill, filed by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, and passed by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday, would require oil and gas companies to report how much water they use for fracking to groundwater conservation districts. Lisa Craven, Hegar’s chief of staff, said current regulations on oil and gas companies drilling for fracking water were implemented before the practice was invented and need to be reformed.

“Senator Hegar believes that the oil and gas companies should have to follow the rules that apply to everyone else,” Craven said. 

Bills filed by state Rep. James Keffer, R-Eastland, and state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio would exempt water wells drilled for fracking purposes from the groundwater conservation district’s permitting process. 

“It’s the exact opposite of what our bill would do,” Craven said.