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Study: Oil and gas industry threatening Rio Grande watershed in South Texas

Border Report

The Rio Grande is seen on May 28, 2021, in Laredo, Texas, overlooking Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Laredo gets all of its drinking water from the international river. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The U.S. oil and gas industry is using international waters from the Rio Grande at a high rate and much of it is largely going unnoticed, and it could lead to a lack of water for South Texas in years to come, according to a new study.

Graphic by Rio Grande International Study Center

The report, “The Thirst for Water in South Texas: Report on the Usage and Disposal of Water for Oil & Gas Development in Webb County, Texas,” was produced by the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center and warns that freshwater resources, primarily surface water from the Rio Grande, is being used for oil and gas development and could hinder the amount of water available for municipalities, residences and agriculture in the future.

“Water requirements that are vital for oil and gas development can frequently go unseen by the public eye. While water for oil and gas development does not account for significant usage in comparison to the needs of municipal or agricultural use, its demands can have sharp impacts on local water resources, intensifying conflicts between water users in water stressed areas and during times of drought,” according to the report released Monday.

The report studied the oil and gas industry’s use of water over 10 years in Webb County, which is among the top three natural gas-producing counties in Texas.

Laredo, the county’s largest city, gets all of its drinking water from the Rio Grande. The county is located in the southern-most corner of the Eagle-Ford Shale, an area that boomed in 2015 with oil and gas production.

Martin Castro, the watershed science director for the Rio Grande International Study Center who wrote the report, told Border Report on Tuesday that this is a “first in its kind” study designed to “raise awareness” of the potential dangers of water consumption if it continues as is. The report was produced with a grant from the Rockefeller Family Fund.

In addition to organizing against border wall construction, The Rio Grande International Study Center has been outspoken in promoting climate change awareness as well as improving air quality that is compromised in Webb County, where daily over 16,000 18-wheeler trucks transport trade and goods between Texas and Mexico.

Much of the data was gathered through public information requests to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and from the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry.

Graphic by Rio Grande International Study Center

With no new water rights available for the Rio Grande, many oil and gas producers on the U.S. side have begun purchasing water rights from agricultural holders, and then converting the usage to “mining” to be used for oil and gas production. That threatens the amount of water left for municipalities, farms and other water needs in Webb County, Texas, the report found.

“These industry developments have also increased concerns related to water resources, such as the large quantities of water required for fracking and the sources of freshwater used for these operations,” according to the report.

Municipalities are going to end up hurting for drinking water because they’re not going to have enough drinking water to supply the demand.”

Martin Castro, Rio Grande International Study Center

The report cited that from 2010 to 2020, six oil and gas operators in Webb County diverted over 19.2 billion gallons of surface water from the Rio Grande for oil and gas development — that is equivalent to supplying an estimated 214,000 single-family homes in Texas with enough water for an entire year.

And because of the chemicals used in oil and gas production, much of the water cannot be returned to its original source or back to the water cycle “due to its hazardous nature and the lack of federal or state laws that require treatment and safe reuse,” the report found.

“The real issue has remained clear: the Rio Grande lacks sufficient water to provide for all those who depend on it,” according to the 58-page report.

Adding to water needs is a growing population on both sides of the Texas and Mexico border that relies on the river.

A 1944 international treaty regulates the river usage, under the International & Boundary Water Commission, but repeatedly Mexico has failed to deliver its required water allotment to the United States.

And with no mechanism for enforcement among the two countries, environmentalists fear that water shortages will plague the South Texas border region if action isn’t taken now.

Among solutions suggested in the report:

  • Require the TCEQ to push and make self-reported water usage data for all users in the Rio Grande Basin publicly available.
  • Urge state lawmakers to change rules requiring the reporting of mining water usage.
  • Urge the Texas Railroad Commission to investigate the 20 disposal wells in Webb County.
  • Create a new groundwater conservation district for Webb County to provide monitoring, conservation, preservation, protection, recharging and to prevent groundwater contamination.

“Water is an extremely valuable commodity especially in the drought-prone area of South Texas,” Castro told Border Report. “Municipalities are going to end up hurting for drinking water because they’re not going to have enough drinking water to supply the demand that we’re expected to have in the next 20 to 40 years.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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