A Wary Rancher’s Wellspring: Oil and Water

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Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a periodic series exploring regional issues of interest or importance outside San Antonio.

Hugh FitzsimonsThese are the two liquids of my life: Oil and Water. I am composed of one, but being held hostage by the other. As I write this piece, the incessant vibrato of a multimillion dollar, 16 stage “zipper frac” is pulsating 8,000 feet beneath my feet. It shatters a stillness that can never be recaptured, telegraphing its message to a world obsessed with conquering nature in order to fuel our lifestyles.

Each well consumes 1.2 to 3.5 million gallons – larger wells can use over 5 million gallons – of the rarest of Texas assets: fresh water. And this process is projected to repeat itself in tens of thousands of wells being drilled here in South Texas, alone, swallowing and potentially polluting our groundwater. In short, we seem to be dominating nature to our own demise, here in what once was known as the desplobado, what Spanish explorers called “no man’s land”. Even then it was a country no one really wanted because it lacked one crucial life-giving element: water.

When my grandfather bought this land out of foreclosure from the Frost Bank, there was a single windmill on the ranch. The windmill remains there today, a touchstone to the past. That windmill, (which we call the “San Francisco”, as it was christened by the Votaw family) still stands with its wooden tower planted firmly on the Carrizo sandstone outcropping. It pumps a meager two gallons a minute to fill the pila that then feeds the water trough for my bison and wildlife.

Hugh Fitzsimons

Photo courtesy of Hugh Fitzsimons.

The well was drilled in 1927 to a depth of sixty-seven feet. It gives up just enough water to sustain animals within a four mile radius and to expand the grazing area of the steers. But by taking this bold step, using this then relatively new technology to increase the carrying capacity of the land, the rancher doubled the size of his herd. This was a modest, by most accounts relatively low impact, use of one’s own resource.

But humans are no longer self-limiting creatures.

At the base of the well where the drill pipe enters the earth is a small, solid square of well poured cement. A headstone monolith for my wooden temple, propelled by the prevailing winds that sweep their way north across the Rio Grande out of Old Mexico. In the lower left hand quadrant of the cement is a reverse swastika, incised by the driller at the time, which can be interpreted as the Navajo nations’ sign for  “good luck” and favorable winds; or less favorably, as the sign of the Third Reich. Since the drilling of the well predates Hitler’s rise to power, I go with the Navajo. In my mind’s eye, I see this old Indian take a small piece of wire and draw what he knew he could do. Bless this sacred spot, it symbolizes the small extraction of the life-giving waters to sustain the world around him.

But that is not where we are today.

Where we are is at a paradox that is enriching, depleting and dividing land owners in South Texas. It’s been our good luck to have a relatively clean and accessible underground water source; is it worth risking that resource for the finite carbon entombed below?  Yes, you say, if you own your mineral rights and can sell that precious water for $1 per barrel to an oil company. But if you are a land owner with no such rights, whose water is being drained by a neighbor’s well that is pumping water day and night, taking in some cases three months to fill a frac pit, you’re out of luck.

Because there is little regulating the extraction of underground water in Texas, fracking companies at this moment are taking all they can get. Like a grandparent letting a four-year-old loose in a candy store, our state is allowing the unprecedented depletion of what the law asserts belongs to one owner but which by its nature belongs to us all.

Hugh Fitzsimons is a rancher in Dimmit County. Hugh owns Thunderheart Bison and Native Nectar Guajillo Honey. He is also a director of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District.

 

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Water Security: Will Texas Leadership Finally Act? January 2013

Eagle Ford Forum II: Sustaining the Boom and Averting the Bust January 2013

Eagle Ford Heyday: Economic Boom Obscures Long-Term Issues December 2012

The Texas Lege: Do the Right Thing, Please January 2013

Higher Water Rates for a Sustainable Future October 2012

‘Old Man Water’: A Longtime Observer Surveys the San Antonio Landscape October 2012

Private Lands/Public Benefits: Farmland = Drinking Water November 2012

7 thoughts on “A Wary Rancher’s Wellspring: Oil and Water

  1. Yeah, we will pay for this rush into extracting as much as we can w/out slowing down and taking the time to do it right…it’s sickening!

  2. Beautifully written—he gets to the point clearly—and why is it exactly nobody, esp those in “leadership” positions in Austin, asking any of these all important questions? How can they ignore the water issues? Answer (unfortunately) is the almighty dollar, the relentless and careless chase.

  3. Interesting strategy. The article is a well written call to action. When will our legislators finally make property rights and mineral rights one in the same so when oil companies do come knocking, people will at least receive due compensation. Wait, I thought water districts have the ability to invoke eminent domain?

  4. Beautiful article Sunny. So well written and thought out. I’m so glad you are involved in South Texas water issues. A real voice of reason.

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