Beverly McGuire saw the warning signs before the town well went dry: sand in the toilet bowl, the sputter of air in the tap, a pump working overtime to no effect. But it still did not prepare her for the night last month when she turned on the tap and discovered the tiny town where she had made her home for 35 years was out of water.
“The day that we ran out of water I turned on my faucet and nothing was there and at that moment I knew the whole of Barnhart was down the tubes,” she said, blinking back tears. “I went: ‘dear God help us. That was the first thought that came to mind.”
Across the south-west, residents of small communities like Barnhart are confronting the reality that something as basic as running water, as unthinking as turning on a tap, can no longer be taken for granted.
Three years of drought, decades of overuse and now the oil industry’s outsize demands on water for fracking are running down reservoirs and underground aquifers. And climate change is making things worse.
In Texas alone, about 30 communities could run out of water by the end of the year, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Nearly 15 million people are living under some form of water rationing, barred from freely sprinkling their lawns or refilling their swimming pools. In Barnhart’s case, the well appears to have run dry because the water was being extracted for shale gas fracking.
The town — a gas station, a community hall and a taco truck – sits in the midst of the great Texan oil rush, on the eastern edge of the Permian basin.
A few years ago, it seemed like a place on the way out. Now McGuire said she can see nine oil wells from her back porch, and there are dozens of RVs parked outside town, full of oil workers.
But soon after the first frack trucks pulled up two years ago, the well on McGuire’s property ran dry.
No-one in Barnhart paid much attention at the time, and McGuire hooked up to the town’s central water supply. “Everyone just said: ‘too bad’. Well now it’s all going dry,” McGuire said.
Ranchers dumped most of their herds. Cotton farmers lost up to half their crops. The extra draw down, coupled with drought, made it impossible for local ranchers to feed and water their herds, said Buck Owens. In a good year, Owens used to run 500 cattle and up to 8,000 goats on his 7,689 leased hectares (19,000 acres). Now he’s down to a few hundred goats.
The drought undoubtedly took its toll but Owens reserved his anger for the contractors who drilled 104 water wells on his leased land, to supply the oil companies.
Water levels were dropping in his wells because of the vast amounts of water being pumped out of the Edwards-Trinity-Plateau Aquifer, a 34,000 sq mile water bearing formation.
“They are sucking all of the water out of the ground, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of water trucks here every day bringing fresh water out of the wells,” Owens said.
Meanwhile, residents in town complained, they were forced to live under water rationing. “I’ve got dead trees in my yard because I haven’t been able to water them,” said Glenda Kuykendall. “The state is mandating our water system to conserve water but why?… Getting one oil well fracked takes more water than the entire town can drink or use in a day.”
Even as the drought bore down, even as the water levels declined, the oil industry continued to demand water and those with water on their land were willing to sell it. The road west of town was lined with signs advertising “fresh water”, where tankers can take on a box-car-sized load of water laced with industrial chemicals.