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During Drought, Once-Mighty Texas Rice Belt Fades Away

In the floodplain, several inches of fine silty mud sit atop thick, heavy clay. The clay is the finest dust eroded by the river, carried until this point then deposited as the river spreads out across the prairie. The silt is a thick rich mixture of sediment from upstream. The land in the floodplain naturally holds water very well.

Dylan Baddour / StateImpact Texas

In the floodplain, several inches of fine silty mud sit atop thick, heavy clay. The clay is the finest dust eroded by the river, carried until this point then deposited as the river spreads out across the prairie. The silt is a thick rich mixture of sediment from upstream. The land in the floodplain naturally holds water very well.

In 2012, some farming districts on the Lower Colorado River were cut off from water for irrigation for the first time. Reservoirs were too low to flood tens of thousands of rice fields. Some asked, “Why would anyone be farming rice in Texas in the first place?”

The answer is long, and it begins with the fact that parts of Texas haven’t always been dry. For farmers like Ronald Gertson, who remembers driving a tractor through rice fields as a child, recent years have been hard to bear.

“It’s just unbelievable that it’s been so bad that we have had three unprecedented years in a row, and I recognize some experts say we could have a couple of decades like this. I hope and pray that’s not the case,” says Gertson, a rice farmer, chair of numerous water-related committees and, in recent years, unofficial spokesman for the Texas Rice Belt. “If that is the case then yeah, this whole prairie is going to change.”

But it has already changed.

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Watch: Fracking The Eagle Ford Shale – Big Oil And Bad Air On The Texas Prairie

Fracking The Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil And Bad Air On The Texas Prairie from Weather Films on Vimeo.

A new joint investigation out this week on air quality in the Eagle Ford Shale has brought up troubling questions about the effect fracking in South Texas is having on the health of residents. Inside Climate News, The Center for Public Integrity, and the Weather Channel cooperated on the report, which took eight months.

Among the report’s findings:

  • “Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.”
  • “Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice “[c]annot be proven to be protective.” Continue Reading

Industry and Activists Battle Over Welds and Words As Crude Moves in Keystone XL

A picture provided to StateImpact Texas from property rights activist Julia Trigg Crawford of what she said was work on the Keystone pipeline.

Photo Courtesy of Julia Trigg Crawford

A picture provided to StateImpact Texas from property rights activist Julia Trigg Crawford of what she said was work on the Keystone pipeline.

Before the oil started flowing in earnest through the southern part of the Keystone XL pipeline last week, land owner and property rights activist Julia Trigg Crawford noticed work crews unearthing parts of of the pipeline. When StateImpact called Crawford for a quote about the pipeline’s activation, she mentioned that activity.

“Track hoes, skids, water trucks, electrical trucks and construction crews showed up,” Crawford said. “They unearthed the pipeline, attached wires and sensors, wrapped it in something and then covered it up.”

Crawford added that TransCanada, the company that owns the pipeline, told her it had been installing temperature sensors. StateImpact Texas emailed TransCanada for confirmation, but did not hear back by the piece’s Wednesday morning deadline, a fact noted in the original article.

Wednesday evening TransCanada sent an email explaining the work.

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Angry North Texans Demand State Shut Down Wells Linked to Earthquakes

Residents of the quake-stricken area called on state regulators to immediately suspend operations at the wells believed to be behind the tremors.

Photo by Sam Ortega/KUT

Residents of the quake-stricken area called on state regulators to immediately suspend operations at the wells believed to be behind the tremors.

Dozens of residents and local officials from the towns of Azle, Reno and Springtown outside of Fort Worth bused down to Austin Tuesday to speak before state regulators about a swarm of recent earthquakes believed to be tied to the oil and gas industry. They had plenty of questions for the Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, but the commission had few answers.

While the quakes have been relatively small, not big enough to cause major damage, there’s been a lot of them: more than thirty over the last few months. They’ve caused cracks in homes, sinkholes and more than a few rude awakenings.

“The quakes started recently, and I didn’t think much about it until I was asleep at midnight,” testified Springtown resident Phil Doss. “It woke me up. I thought a 747 had landed on my roof. It was that bad.”

Springtown is one of several towns in Texas that saw a sudden onset of quakes over the last few years as a drilling boom expanded throughout the state. No earthquakes struck the Dallas-Fort Worth region before 2007, according to records from the United States Geological Survey. There have been more than a hundred since. Continue Reading

North Texas Earthquake Swarm More Centralized Than Previously Thought


View Earthquakes Near Azle, Texas in a larger map
Map created by Andrew Weber for KUT News and StateImpact Texas. Orange circles represent earthquakes, wavy blue lines represent active wastewater disposal wells.

Another minor earthquake shook the North Texas community of Azle on Monday. It’s one of dozens to hit the region over the last few months that have residents on edge and complaining of property damage.

Many see a link between the quakes and increased oil and gas activity. But challenges confront scientists researching the quakes for the U.S. Geological Survey and Southern Methodist University. For one, they’ve needed to more accurately pinpoint the epicenters of the Azle quakes.

“The closest seismograph station used by the National Earthquake Information Center to locate the Azle earthquakes is over 60 miles to the south, the next closest is 125 miles to the West,” USGS Seismologist Williams Ellsworth explained in a letter to Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett in a December letter obtained by StateImpact Texas (embedded below).

In that same letter, Ellsworth explains how he has produced a more accurate map of the quakes, one that shows them clustered in a more concentrated location than previously thought.

“To date, it looks like the earthquakes are all in one very localized zone,” Ellsworth confirmed to StateImpact Texas over the phone.

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As Texas Towns Shake, Regulators Sit Still

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

Photo: OLIVER BERG DPA/LANDOV

After 20 earthquakes in a month, will state regulators respond?

State Oil and Gas Regulator Says No Changes Needed After Latest Earthquake Swarm

After twenty minor earthquakes in a month, residents in the small towns of Azle and Springtown outside of Fort Worth are understandably confused about why their once-stable region is now trembling on a near-daily basis.

Teachers in the Azle school district are taking a page from the California playbook and holding earthquake drills for students. Inspectors are making regular visits to the earthen Eagle Mountain Lake dam, as well as others in the area, checking for damage. (So far they’ve found none.) And locals like Rebecca Williams are constantly looking at their own homes for damage. So far she’s found cracks in her home, driveway and in a retaining wall in her backyard.

The quakes have been small, below the threshold that is known to cause significant damage. But they’ve unnerved residents like Williams, who moved out to Eagle Mountain Lake looking for some peace and quiet.

“You can actually see my house rocking from side to side,” Williams says. She was at home when the largest of the quakes (magnitude 3.6) struck on the evening of November 19th. “I tried to get up and run downstairs,” she says. “And for a moment, I couldn’t run, because the house was shaking so bad!”

So what’s behind the tremors?  Continue Reading

Mapped: The Latest Earthquake Swarm in Texas (Update)


View North Texas Earthquakes in a larger map

A map of recent earthquakes (in red) and oil and gas wastewater disposal wells outside of Fort Worth. Active disposal wells are in green; inactive wells are in yellow. Map by Michael Marks/Terrence Henry

Ten  Seventeen* earthquakes in just a month, the biggest a magnitude 3.6. That’s what small towns like Azle and Springtown Northwest of Fort Worth have had to deal with recently. (*More quakes have struck Azle since this story was originally published: on November 21, 23, 25, 26 and 29. The Nov. 25 quake measured 3.3.)

The region is also home to several disposal wells, which are used to store massive amounts of wastewater from oil and gas drilling. In other parts of the Barnett Shale drilling area disposal wells have been linked to similar series of quakes. You can see where the quakes have occurred recently around the town of Azle, as well as active and inactive disposal wells in the region, in the map above. The quakes are in Tarrant and Parker counties.

Cliff Frohlich, Associate Director of the Institute for Geophysics University of Texas at Austin, has lead research into links between oil and gas drilling activity and manmade earthquakes. His study of earthquakes in the Barnett Shale found that disposal wells were responsible. Continue Reading

Should Texas Ranchers Worry About Anthrax?

A map of reported Anthrax cases in Texas, by county. Map by Michael Marks

Texas is cattle country: there are nearly 13 million cows wandering through Texas, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. That’s over 14 percent of the country’s total cattle population.

And our bovine friends have some company: there are also approximately 1.3 million goats, nearly one million horses, and 3.6 million deer.

So if just one grazing animal died of a lethal and highly transmittable disease, there would be cause for concern that large numbers of animals could be at risk.

That’s exactly what happened last Monday when the Texas Animal Health Commission confirmed that a cow had died of anthrax southwest of San Angelo.

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Evaporation, the Unseen Reservoir-Killer

Dried up mud from the lake bottom at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, September 2013.

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

Dried up mud from the lake bottom at Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls, Texas, September 2013.

Even if Rains Return, Climate Change Still Puts Texas Water Supplies at Risk

After years of drought, the city of Wichita Falls in North Texas is going to Stage 4 water restrictions this week, which bans all outdoor watering: No car washes. No more city water for golf courses. And no watering your lawn, of course.  It’s the first time the city has moved to this stage, declaring a “drought disaster.”

While a lack of rainfall is certainly to blame for the sorry state of reservoirs in the region, it isn’t the only culprit. Evaporation has also played a big part in making the drought so destructive.

Reservoir levels across the Western half of Texas remain dangerously low.

Map by Texas Water Development Board

Reservoir levels across the Western half of Texas remain dangerously low.

A typical year in Wichita Falls will see around 28 days with temperatures of a hundred degrees or higher. In 2011, they had 100 days over 100 degrees.

“Think about that for a minute,” Rusell Schreiber, Public Works Director, said while announcing the new restrictions this week. “That’s over three months of temperatures over a hundred degrees. One-fourth of the entire year.”

All that heat leads to more evaporation in the large, shallow reservoirs of North and West Texas. And it’s not limited to that region. Last year, the Highland Lakes, reservoirs for the city of Austin, lost more water to evaporation than the entire city used from them over the whole year. Continue Reading

Many Texas Communities Follow ‘Minimum Standards’ Or Less When Regulating Floodplains

MAP BY MICHAEL MARKS. A map of Texas Counties that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program. Counties in gray have insurance, counties in yellow have never had insurance, and counties in red do not currently have insurance, but have at some point. NOTE: Cities and towns may participate in the program even if their county does not.

The floods that killed five people and damaged over 1,000 homes in Austin on Halloween morning threw the danger of floods into stark relief. But when it comes to guarding against risky development in flood-prone regions, there’s little consistency from one Texas community to the next, with some areas still lacking any regulation.

The reason goes back to the way the state and local communities choose to adopt, or not adopt, the National Flood Insurance Program.

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