Water. Coal. Fracking. Texas. Sanity. One of These Words Does Not Belong

JR:  In one District west of Fort Worth, “the share of groundwater used by frackers was 40% in the first half of 2011, up from 25% in 2010.”

— RL Miller has more on the collision between Texas’s record drought and its water-guzzling fossil-fuel dependence in this Daily Kos cross-post.

In case anyone missed it, Texas had a big drought last summer — the worst one year drought in the state’s history [see “Worst Texas Drought in Centuries].  Lakes dried, animals were slaughtered, cities imposed lawn watering restrictions, the governor prayed for rain. About the only part of the state unaffected were the wind turbines of West Texas, spinning merrily along and oblivious to near-apocalyptic conditions.

Droughts end, and places recover. Unless they don’t.

Talk has been circulating among the doom-and-gloom sector of the Left of Texas as a failed state. It’s easy to dismiss as a tit-for-tat, revenge for Texas’ talk of secession. Until one looks hard at the water.

The state’s water shortage is structural, warns the Texas Water Development Board. Currently the state needs 18 million acre-feet of water, and it has 17 million acre-feet available to it. Aquifers deplete. Population grows. By 2060, the state is expected to need 22 million acre-feet but only have 15.3 million acre-feet available to it. Because some dry places simply can’t have water piped, the total shortfall is projected to be 8.3 million acre-feet. Roughly, the state will have 2 gallons of water available to it for every 3 gallons it needs.

Houston, we have a problem.

Currently, 18 cities are high priority -they’ll either run out of water within 6 months unless the rains come, or they don’t know how much water they have. Texas’ water supply for the future is uncertain, and the health of Galveston Bay, home of the state’s most commercially productive estuary, is in jeopardy. Last week, voters approved one of two water-related measures on the ballot – a water bond to build dams, but that’s no short term solution for a state whose wildfire “season” is now over one year old.In the meantime, the state is blithely planning multiple power projects to meet projected population growth –  9 coal plants in planning stages will be added to the 19 -20 coal-fired power plants already in the state.

Most electricity power plants require large amounts of water. How large? Short answer: a lot, but no one knows. Medium answer: thirsty power plants threaten watersheds, and Texas’ coal plants are among the nation’s thirstiest.

Coal-fired plants alone account for 67 percent of freshwater withdrawals by the power sector and for 65 percent of the water completely consumed by it, the report said. Newer plants include air-cooling or “dry cooling” technologies, but so many plants rely on water-cooling that they accounted for 41 percent of the withdrawals of freshwater in the United States in 2005, according to the United States Geological Survey.

In more detail, a Union of Concerned Scientists report on freshwater use by power sources begins by noting the impact on drought-stricken Texas:

As of late summer 2011, Texas had suffered the driest 10 months since record keeping began in 1895 (LCRA 2011). Some rivers, such as the Brazos, actually dried up (ClimateWatch 2011). The dry weather came with brutal heat: seven cities recorded at least 80 days above 100°F (Dolce and Erdman 2011). With air conditioners straining to keep up, the state’s demand for electricity shattered records as well, topping 68,000 megawatts in early August (ERCOT 2011).An energy-water collision wasn’t far behind. One plant had to curtail nighttime operations because the drought had reduced the amount of cool water available to bring down the temperature of water discharged from the plant (O’Grady 2011; Sounder 2011). In East Texas, other plant owners had to bring in water from other rivers so they could continue to operate and meet demand for electricity. If the drought were to persist into the following year, operators of the electricity grid warned, power cuts on the scale of thousands of megawatts are possible (O’Grady 2011).

State planners have begun to notice the water-intensive nature of coal plants. The White Stallion coal plant, near Bay City south of Houston, planned to take water from an estuary rich in oyster and shrimp nurseries. Even after promising to switch to a less water-intensive dry-cooling plan, the project has been opposed by farmers who don’t have water to sell. This week, the Lower Colorado River Authority rejected a water contract that would have given White Stallion a 25,000 acre-feet/year water permit. Citizens of Sweetwater in west Texas were outraged upon hearing that the city was secretly negotiating sale of water rights for a so-called clean coal project.

Texas will stay thirsty [see State Climatologist: “It’s Likely Much of Texas Will Still Be in Severe Drought” Next August, With Worse Water Shortages].

A structural water shortage is a permanent water shortage that can only be solved by a drastic change — less agriculture, less people, more water from somewhere else (dams? desalination? Oklahoma?). More coal plants sucking more water from rivers and estuaries is not part of a sane water policy. Some alternatives to coal-fired electricity are just as water-intensive.

Natural gas power plants are frugal users of water, but extraction of natural gas through fracking uses billions of gallons of water. Fortunately, one electricity source uses virtually no water and is plentiful throughout west Texas.

— RL Miller is an attorney and environment blogger with Climate Hawks. This piece was originally published at Daily Kos and was reprinted with permission by the author.

JR:  Fracking does use a staggering amount of water.  Here are two recent stories:

Fracking, which employs high-pressure jets of water to fracture rock and release natural gas, accounts for a fast-growing share of water use in some of the driest parts of Texas. Though the overall affect of fracking on reservoirs and rivers in Fort Worth’s Barnett Shale zone is dwarfed by agriculture and homeowners, its local impacts can be severe. For example, in the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (UTGCD) west of Fort Worth, the share of groundwater used by frackers was 40 percent in the first half of 2011, up from 25 percent in 2010.

“Obviously, that’s a pretty heavy draw on an aquifer when we’re in the midst of a drought,” says Bob Patterson, UTGCD’s general manager. In his water district, 40 to 50 wells have run dry and many municipalities have declared stage two or stage three drought conditions, which involve severe restrictions on residential outdoor water use. But natural gas drillers can still pump as much water from the district as they want….

Critics of fracking claim the industry actually uses far more water than it lets on. Because water used in the fracking process becomes contaminated with hydrocarbons and other toxins, frackers typically sequester it deep underground, removing that wastewater permanently from the hydrologic cycle. Unlike the water used for irrigation or daily living, it doesn’t reenter rivers, aquifers, or the atmosphere. “Fracking water is typically not recycled,” says Paul Hudak, a hydrologist with the University of North Texas. “It’s not really economical.”

18 Responses to Water. Coal. Fracking. Texas. Sanity. One of These Words Does Not Belong

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Very interesting, thanks. Texans are so joined at the hip with the fossil fuel companies that change will be a struggle, unfortunately.

    Texas exports wind power, but solar farms and rooftops have a future there as well. The baseload problem is solvable if different groups cooperate, whether with smart grids or thermal storage.

    When it comes to water, the solar industry needs to be a lot more proactive in countering propaganda. In California, oil industry plants claimed that solar used a lot of water, when the only water consumed was for cleaning the panels, about 6 homes’ worth of water consumption for a 400 MGW plant. The rumor of heavy solar water consumption persists, due to coal/gas media influence. Solar PR is weak and passive.

    By countering these falsehoods, and employing grid integration for wind, solar and wind will get a much harder look from Texas ranchers and consumers, and the fossil fuel companies will receive another well deserved stain on their reputations.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    It’s very troubling that the water needs of Texas agriculture are treated like yet another business sector, in competition with these coal and gas interests, though all of them compete with water usage by cities.

    LCRA, the Lower Colorado River Authority
    has posted:
    “Given this forecast, LCRA’s Board of Directors decided Sept. 21 to ask the state for permission to significantly curtail or cut off water for downstream agricultural use next year if the levels of lakes Buchanan and Travis remain low.”

    More at:

  3. malexy says:

    This is one of the reasons that “petrofracking” seems likely to replace hydrofracking, particularly in Texas.

  4. Kyle Harris says:

    With the EPA getting closer every day to acknowledging groundwater contamination from fracking, these industries are fueling their own demise. Check out this story from Wyoming:

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    Oct. 26th –
    ” The algae do not harm oysters but do kill fish. In an estimate last week, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said 3 million fish had been killed by red tide along the Texas coast this year. “

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    Now, scientists from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University have revealed that a complex cascade of molecular signals leading up to the self-inflicted death of corals and their symbiotic algae is triggered as sea water begins to warm.
    Working with Acropora corals from the reef at Heron Island, the researchers found the cascade begins at ocean temperatures as much as 3 degrees lower than those normally associated with coral bleaching.

    And the process culminates in ‘apoptosis’ or programmed cell-death – a situation in which living organisms (including corals and humans) deliberately destroy their weakened or infected body cells, effectively a form of ‘cell suicide’ or amputation designed to protect the organism as a whole.

  7. Colorado Bob says:

    Drought causes peat to release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than has previously been realized

    Climate change effect on release of CO2 from peat far greater than assumed Drought causes peat to release far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than has previously been realised.

    Much of the world’s peatlands lie in regions predicted to experience increased frequency and severity of drought as a result of climate change- leading to the peat drying out and releasing vast stores of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. It’s the very wetness of the peat that has kept the air out, locking in centuries of carbon dioxide that would normally be released from the decomposing plant materials in the peat. Now scientists at Bangor University have discovered that the effect of periods of severe drought lasts far beyond the initial drought itself.

  8. Jeff Poole says:

    ‘acre-feet’ WTF?

    Do you folks in the Western Colonies still measure in chains, cubits and bushels too?

    Could you at least put real measurements in – you know, ones that aren’t based on the length some old English monarch’s appendages – so that the rest of the planet has some idea what on earth you’re talking about.


  9. I am all in favour of replacing fossil fuel fired power with clean alternatives as part of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the water saving case is more complex:
    The big user of water in coal fired power is the water lost in evaporative cooling towers. This water is needed for the steam turbines to work. (To condense the steam leaving the turbine.) Water cooling can be replaced by air cooling but, in hot climates, generator efficiency is reduced because condenser temperature is higher. Reduced efficiency means more greenhouse gases per kWh.
    Solar thermal also uses steam turbines to generate power so the need for cooling is much the same as for coal fired.
    Combined cycle gas also requires cooling to make the steam turbine part work. However, the amount of cooling required is less because most of the power generated comes from the gas turbine.
    Solar PV and wind do not require cooling water.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    one acre foot = 1233.5 cubic meters, Jeff.

    The US is an odd country. I was told in grade school in the 1950’s that we needed to learn the metric system, since conversion was inevitable.

    For a place that started out as a fountain of knowledge and democratic progress, we have become oddly sclerotic in many ways.

  11. Tim says:

    I think we really do still use bushels in agriculture! It will not surprise you to learn that the U.S. Metric Board (USMB, 1975 – 1982) had begun the process of converting the US to the metric (SI) system, only to be disbanded (to “save money”) by – you guessed it – the Reagan Administration in 1982, on the recommendation of two political hacks, Frank Mankiewicz and Lyn Nofziger.
    In 1999, NASA lost a 125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin engineering team used English units of measurement while the agencys team used the more conventional metric system. The original mirror on the Hubbell telescope was also caused by a metric to Englsh system conversion error. And, as any American who uses ordinary tools knows, we often have to buy redundant sets of wrenches and other tools because the two political hacks in the Reagan administration (and Congress) can’t even summon the courage to end our feudal measurement system.

  12. Tim says:

    Sources: CNN and Wikipedia

  13. sailrick says:

    The NREL’s estimate for West Texas potential for solar thermal power plants is about 127 GW. Equip them with molten salt heat storage and you have some baseload power,

  14. sailrick says:

    The NREL’s estimate for solar thermal power plant potential in West Texas is 127 GW. Equip them with molten salt heat storage and you have base load power.

  15. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘American Exceptionalism’ has passed its ‘Use By’ date. It annoys the rest of humanity, too.

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    If it’s killing fish, I would be game to eat oysters or any other shellfish from the vicinity.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Oops! ‘would not’ be game.

  18. Buster Wiley says:

    1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons