The one thing more valuable than oil — fresh, drinkable water

This article talks about the competing interests to fresh water in West Texas, but this is only one example where private ownership of water is resulting in long-term disaster. Much of the water in drought-stricken areas is contained in aquifers that, once drained, will not refill. Moreover, the water in those aquifers is sweet and pure — ideal for drinking and other human needs.

The amount of water needed to produce oil, frack gas, and other forms of fossil fuel production are absolutely mind boggling. What I find equally mind boggling is that the millions of gallons of fresh, good water (used to make a few people wealthy off fossil fuels that need to be left in the ground) are ruined for normal purposes in the process.

At some point, this country is going to have to realize that producing fossil fuels that use up a diminishing and precious supply of fresh water is not only environmentally unsound but is destroying the most precious asset on earth — drinkable, pure water. (And that’s all aside from all of the environmental hazards caused by the production and consumption of fossil fuels).

Neighbors Face Off Over Texas’ Other Lucrative Resource: Water

One powerful West Texas family wants to pipe from under its farmland to oil producers; another wants to stanch that flow

Aquifer water is pumped into an irrigation canal at a Williams property this month near Fort Stockton, Texas.

FORT STOCKTON, Texas—Wildcatter Clayton Williams Jr. made his first fortune in oil. He aims to make another off a treasure buried beneath his family’s West Texas land. It’s a massive trove of water.

The powerful Williams family wants to pipe as much as 25 million gallons a day away from its property at the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert and sell it to oil companies, cities and anyone else with deep pockets and an unquenchable thirst.

The plan is pitting neighbor against neighbor and rekindling a debate over who should control fresh water in a bone-dry region. Many of the region’s farmers and ranchers depend on income from selling their water to oil producers. Desert towns like Fort Stockton, near the Williams farm, fear their water sources will dry up.

“I don’t know why the hell you would want to pipe water out of the desert,” said Kirby Warnock, 67, whose family has owned a ranch near the Williams farm for nearly a century. “It’s like space shuttle astronauts selling their oxygen. It boggles my mind.”

A pipe at a Williams property carries water to an oil rig nearby.

Another influential Texas oil family is suing the local water regulator, hoping to limit how much the Williamses can pump. The family investment office of the Cockrells, for whom the University of Texas engineering school is named, is worried over-pumping could deplete water wells on their farm and put their 68,000 pecan trees at risk.

For the Williamses, the issue is straightforward: Under Texas law, they can pump water from under their land and use it for whatever commercial purpose they choose, with few limits. Their farm’s main product is alfalfa, used to make hay, which is sold to customers as far away as China.

“If we sell alfalfa to Saudi Arabia or China, it’s basically us exporting water there, so what’s the difference?” said Jeff Williams, 45, who runs the family farm for his father, in an interview last year. He didn’t respond to fresh inquiries this month.

A Great ThirstFracking requires water, and the cost andvolume of water used is rising.Median water use per well for oil producingformations

.million gallonsBakkenEagle FordNiobara


Share of total spending on water for frackingand related costs, by basinTotal spending in 2018: $13 billionSources: Science Advances (water); BluefieldResearch (spending)Note: Water use in the Permian includes gasproduction

54%1275418PermianMarcellusEagle FordCanaWoodfordHaynesvilleOther

Mark Tisdale, a lawyer for the family company, Clayton Williams Co s., said the area has more than enough water to support the Williamses’ plans.

Humans have fought over water for much of recorded history, especially in the American West, where it is scarce in many places and control of it can yield fortunes. The fight here comes as competition is heating up for water around the world, in dry regions and wet ones. Surging populations, rising demand for industrial-scale farming and manufacturing, and hotter temperatures are putting new stress on the constrained resource.

There has never been a better time to sell West Texas water, thanks to the fracking boom. Shale companies use large volumes in hydraulic fracturing, blasting underground rock with water, sand and chemicals to unlock oil and gas.

Drillers have made the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico the top-producing U.S. oil field, helping raise the country’s total production to a record 12 million barrels a day. Permian water use grew nearly ninefold between 2011 and 2016 as drillers added more than 10,000 wells, according to a Duke University study published in August. An average well there in 2018 used more than 15 million gallons, compared with 7 million in 2013.

Frackers in the region pay an average 50 to 75 cents for a barrel of water, according to Bluefield Research, a water advisory firm. That amounts to more than $200,000 a well. Supplying water for fracking in the Permian is a roughly $1.2 billion industry annually, and including transportation and other costs, water spending for fracking there will surge to as much as $54 billion over the next decade, the firm said.

The Williams family has so far sold limited amounts of water for fracking, says Mr. Tisdale. The family wants to build a pipeline to sell water outside Pecos County—a process called “exporting”—to oil producers and others. It obtained a permit in 2017, following a decade of litigation that resulted in a settlement with the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, which regulates aquifer water levels.

The Cockrell family sued the groundwater district last July in the District Court of Pecos County, calling the settlement with the Williams “a sham” and arguing the family should have been allowed to weigh in on the Williamses’ plans.

The Cockrell family is worried the Williamses’ proposed water pumping could threaten the 68,000 pecan trees on their farm, above.

Ernest Cockrell founded Cockrell Oil Corp. in 1901, and the family manages substantial oil-and-gas and real-estate assets. “We are a big believer in private property rights, but it’s also a shared resource and it’s a high-plains desert,” said Robert Hatcher, 56, who runs the family office, Cockrell Interests LLC.

The Cockrells are worried the Williamses, if they export water, will pump year-round, limiting the aquifer’s winter recharge. The lawsuit has been temporarily stayed as the parties attempt to negotiate how much of the aquifer can be drained at any given time before pumping must be halted.

‘Water is for fighting’

“What’s the old saying, ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,’ ” said Jeff Williams. “My father always understood the value of water.”

Share Your Thoughts

Who should be able to benefit from underground water reserves? Join the conversation below.

The Williamses moved to Fort Stockton in the 19th century, establishing themselves as farmers and ranchers before striking it rich in oil in the 20th century. Tensions in Fort Stockton still run high decades after Clayton Williams Sr. and others began drilling water wells near town, pumping millions of gallons a day for industrial-scale farming in the 1950s.

Following the pumping, many of the farms on the east side of town lost their water supply, destroying livelihoods. The town’s Comanche Springs, which fed a swimming pool that hosted its annual Water Carnival, dried up. Today, the event is hosted at a chlorinated pool.

Water Strain

Water in Texas has been under stress for decades but is experiencing new demands from heightened oil activity in shale basins, including the Permian and Eagle Ford.


new mexico




Fort Stockton



water stress*


San Antonio

Extremely high






Arid/low water use

*When demand exceeds available water

Source: World Resources Institute

The local water district concluded the depletion was due to the pumping and sued Clayton Williams Sr. in 1951 on behalf of farmers who had lost their water, seeking to more stringently regulate pumping. The El Paso Court of Appeals sided with the Williamses and enshrined an unusual water law. Unlike many states, Texas follows the rule of capture, a common-law tenet dating to Henry IV that holds anything below a property belongs to its owner.

Clayton Williams Sr. would sell the farm years later, and his son spent decades buying it back. Known by his friends as “Claytie,” Clayton Williams Jr., now 87, struck it rich as an oilman, eventually selling his company to Noble Energy Inc. for $2.7 billion in 2017; he declined to be interviewed.

How the Permian Basin Became North America’s Hottest Oilfield

How the Permian Basin Became North America’s Hottest Oilfield
The U.S. has more than doubled its crude output over the last decade. Much of the growth is due to the Permian Basin of West Texas and New Mexico. WSJ traces the hotspot of North America’s crude oil boom, with a look at challenges that producers in the region face.

He is perhaps best-known as a Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee who lost to Democrat Ann Richards in 1990 after an acrimonious campaign still legendary in Texas—one of his campaign promises was to introduce first-time drug offenders to the “joys of bustin’ rocks.”

By the 1980s, Mr. Williams had amassed about 18,000 acres above a number of aquifers, deep deposits trapped in a natural underground dam some scientists believe an asteroid impact formed millions of years ago. The aquifers are valuable because they fill every winter from nearby mountains. The Williamses are Texas’ largest private water owners, some hydrogeologists estimate.

The natural pool at Comanche Springs, left, in a historic photo. The springs were dry in a Fort Stockton park this month.

For years, Fort Stockton opposed the family’s plan to export water from the county. It backs the plan now, and in 2017, the city of about 8,000 reached its own deal to sell up to 390,000 barrels a day for around 10 cents a barrel to a company supplying the oil-and-gas industry, a move some residents criticize.

“Since becoming mayor, I don’t go out much anymore,” said Fort Stockton Mayor Chris Alexander. “I can’t go anywhere without someone coming up to me complain about water.”

Selling groundwater to oil companies is a lifeline for ranchers and farmers who struggle in a region that often gets less than 10 inches of annual rain. When an oil company leases land to drill, the contract often contains requirements it buy water for operations from the landowner.

“It basically saved them,” said Ty Edwards, general manager of the Middle Pecos water district. “Most of the farmers were bankrupt or about to be bankrupt.”

That growing demand has created friction with landowners. Oil producer Jagged Peak Energy Inc. has been drilling on Bob Hayter’s ranch in northern Pecos County, buying water from him for years. Around 2017, it bought a strip of land in the middle of his ranch about 150 yards wide and more than a mile long, he said.

“I thought I owned it, but I didn’t,” said Mr. Hayter, 69. “They only bought it for one thing, and that’s the water.”

Rancher Bob Hayter says pumping by Jagged Peak dried up one of his wells. The company, which produces oil on his property, below left, drilled him a new one. A solar panel powers a water pump for cattle.

The company drilled four water wells there for fracking, according to the water district. Mr. Hayter said they dried up a well on his property. Jagged Peak settled with the district in May for improperly drilling wells and paid it $25,000. The company disputes it drained Mr. Hayter’s well but has drilled him a new one to make amends.

David Eckelberger, a Jagged Peak vice president, said the company “is always trying to put its best foot forward and have good landowner relations.”

Water for oil

Clayton Williams Jr.’s original plan, according to his family and permit applications, was to sell water for municipal use to the cities of Odessa and Midland, the site of his primary residence, about 100 miles northeast of Fort Stockton. The farm has historical permits to use water for agricultural purposes and in 2009 applied for a license to export large amounts of water.

The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District initially refused to consider the application, then rejected it in 2011. The Williams family sued the regulator in federal district court in Texas in 2010 alleging their rights were violated. In separate litigation, it also appealed the regulator’s 2011 decision in District Court of Pecos County.

Groundwater districts are primarily charged with permitting new wells and setting limits on how much water can be pumped. The Williamses’ core argument was that the district could limit only pumping, not what to do with the water.

Aquifer water in an irrigation canal at the Williams property, where alfalfa grows and horses graze.

The family lobbied extensively on the issue, tapping its sway in the Austin legislature. In 2016, Republican State Representative Lyle Larson, a family friend, held a hearing in Fort Stockton to examine whether the water districts were preventing growth in cities by blocking water exports.

Rep. Larson, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, in a June interview said the state, not local officials, needed to set water regulation to ensure Texas’ rapid population growth. “We have social scientist-wannabes in these water districts,” he said, “that are making decisions that are not their decision to make.”

In March 2017, Rep. Larson proposed legislation to review whether the Middle Pecos district should be disbanded. Within months, the district and the Williamses settled out of court. Under the terms, the farm can’t pump more water than it was permitted to use for crops but can export about 60% of its permitted historical volumes, around 9 billion gallons a year. The Williamses agreed to pay the district $404,000, drop all lawsuits and stop lobbying on related issues for several years.

A satellite image shows Cockrell-family farmland surrounded by arid desert.

The Williamses may have missed their window to send water to Midland and Odessa, which have found alternative sources, said Michael Thornhill, a hydrogeologist who works for the family. While their long-term hope is still to sell to the cities, he said, they are now trying to sell to drillers.

“What’s the highest and best use for our water?” said Jeff Williams. “It’s a subjective question. Personally I think it’s the municipal use, but I will sell to oil and gas in the meantime.”

The family has spoken to some of the area’s largest oil producers, but hasn’t signed any supply contracts, said Mr. Tisdale, the family-company lawyer. “It’s a function of what does it cost to get water to somebody,” he said.

The family farm has been relatively far from some of the hottest drilling areas, adding significant transportation cost. But drilling picked up this year in northern Pecos County, about 30 miles away.

“Am I worried about them pulling out too much water? Sure I am,” said Mr. Hayter, a neighboring rancher, of the oil producers. “Money and water, how volatile can you get it, especially in West Texas?”

Many farmers and ranchers, including the Williamses, sell water to oil producers.

Write to Christopher M. Matthews at

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