Can a huge new oil field and famous artesian spring get along?

Executives from the Houston oil and gas exploration company Apache Corp. are driving to the tiny West Texas town of Balmorhea this week. There, they hope to quell fears that hydraulic fracturing operations from the company’s recently discovered Alpine High oilfield won’t contaminate — or use up — the town’s famous teal-blue spring waters.

Apache announced the Permian Basin discovery last week. It said it expected to find more than 15 billion barrels of oil and gas under its 350,000 acres in the prairie north of the Davis Mountains.

The revelation surprised the industry. It also made Balmorhea State Park fans nervous.

The park is centered around a 3.5 million-gallon pool filled and fed by the San Solomon Springs. It stays a cool 72 to 76 degrees even during the heat of a Texas summer. Park travelers say they are worried that Apache’s drilling operations could spoil the spring, contaminate the water, or just use it all up.

While rare, oil operations have fouled drinking water wells before. But of equal concern, the spring’s fans said, was the enormous amount of water hydraulic fracturing requires. Fracking essentially floods oil wells — which are often 10,000 feet deep, or more — with millions of gallons of water, over-pressurizing the wells and cracking the shale rock underground. Oil and gas seep out of those cracks and flow to the surface.

The process also leaves companies with millions of barrels of waste water. Often, that water is pumped back underground via waste wells.

And all of that makes spring-lovers nervous.

Use of San Solomon water for industry around Balmorhea is hardly new. Along with the pool, the springs also feed city canals, a local reservoir and 26 million gallons of water per day to area farmers, according to the city.

Alpine High used that water in one early well, Apache public affairs vice president Castlen Kennedy said this week. And it has an agreement to purchase water from the Reeves County Water District, which governs the spring, she said. Still, she said Apache hopes not to use much of it. The company realized early that tapping that source would send the wrong message to the community. Moreover, Kennedy said, there were other, easier and cheaper water sources.

The company, for instance, has already discovered underground salt water reservoirs nearby. And the ranchers and farmers whose land Apache has leased also often have their own wells — with water they want the company to buy.

Apache hopes to keep a low-profile around Balmorhea. While it has leased the mineral rights under the state park, and under the city itself, it promises not to drill on or under either, Kennedy said. If it can keep derricks and pump jacks away from residents and visitors, it figures it will have a better chance winning what is an increasingly difficult public relations battle against fracking across the U.S.

The company will meet with officials in the region on Friday, Kennedy said, presenting to them a program — which includes testing water, well casings and fracking pressures — to keep oil and water very separated.

A couple other things should help Apache, Kennedy said. Oil wells often produce more water than oil. But Alpine High fluids seem to have an especially low water content, which will reduce the amount of waste water.

The company is also working to recapture fracking water, filter it and recycle it for other wells, she said.

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