© 1980, 2011, 2014 By Bob Litton
Democrat Ron(ald) Coleman (U.S. Rep. for 16th District of Texas from 1983 to 1997) is greeted at the Monahans airport by Waylan Martin (under hat), chairman of the Ward County Republicans. I confess to tricking the two into the “photo op” because of their contrasting political allegiances, but I also wanted to get the two together to work on the water conservation issue.
NOTE TO READER: For those who have not discerned as much by reading through my blog posts, the ones even tangentially referencing politics, I am a liberal down to the marrow. Therefore, I tend to vote as a Democrat, although there have been times in the past when I voted for one or two Republicans in statewide races because they seemed to be best qualified for whatever posts they were seeking. However, since 1980, and even more so since 2000, I have been so angered by Republican policies and tactics that I have voted a straight Democrat party ticket. I have painted the Republicans with perhaps an overly broad brush, judging the ones in power as oligarchists and their supporters as either of the same ilk or as gullible fools.
During my turn as editor of the Monahans News, in the early 1980s, though, I met a Republican gentleman who was exactly that: a gentleman, and a good-natured one at that. His name was Waylan Martin. At the time I met him he was a member of the county hospital’s board of directors. It was, of course, one of my duties to attend that board’s meetings and report them in the paper. Waylan and I became good friends—in fact, he probably was my best friend; that position is hard to measure absolutely. We had coffee together most mornings and we occasionally went flying in Waylan’s four-seat plane.
Waylan was also the chair for the Ward County Republicans. I teased him about that a few times, but mostly we did not let politics get in the way of our friendship. In retrospect, I now marvel that politics did not injure our relationship, because I never blushed at raking the Republicans over the coals in my newspaper column.
One issue Waylan and I definitely were in agreement on was the need to protect and enhance our water resources. We especially were in tune to the idea of canals from the Missouri River into Texas, with several reservoirs in between, in order to make the best use of flood waters. (The Ogallala Aquifer extends from South Dakota into the northern border of the Permian Basin, where we lived.) Beginning in 1977 and continuing into the early 1980s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did a cost/benefit study of such a canal system and derived an estimated cost (in 1977 dollars) of $3.6 billion to deliver 1.6 Million acre feet per year to western Kansas and $22.6 billion per year to deliver 6 million acre feet to the northern panhandle of Texas and the panhandle of Oklahoma. Congress never approved the project.
Waylan closed his water lab sometime in the 1990s in order to retire and move to Plano where his daughter resided. He died about a decade ago, I believe. The lab building is still standing—vacant.
Yes, Waylan was my friend, even though he was also a Republican, for that was a time when Republicans and Democrats could still agree on some matters at least.
* * * * * *
“The very existence of our way of life — of life itself — is dependent on water,” says Monahans water analyst Waylan Martin. “Lots of people look at me like they don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. They say, ‘But what about food?’ and I’ll tell them, ‘You can’t have food without water.’”
Martin, a native of Barstow, has been in the water analysis business for the past 27 years. To prepare for his career, he studied at Baylor, where he received his bachelor of science degree in 1949, and then went on to the University of Texas at Austin for a master’s in bacteriology, completed in 1951.
At his water lab on West Sealy, Martin and his ten employees perform chemical, biological and physical analysis of various kinds of water for oil companies, farmers and others. “Ninety percent of my work is with oil companies, including production and drilling,” he says. “Probably the next most significant amount is irrigation wells.”
The last time he counted them, 357 water injection stations for oil and gas wells all over West Texas were being quality checked on a quarterly basis by Martin’s lab. “There’s always some amount of water coming up with oil and gas during production,” he says. “When they get concerned is when there’s a sudden change in the amount as an increase of ten percent to twenty-five percent or from eighty percent to ninety-five percent.”
According to the water expert, during the completion of a new well, the additional water can derive from any of five sources: acid water, drilling brine, frac water, load water and natural water. Most of the water sources can be tolerated for a while; it’s the “natural water” which scares oilmen because its supply could be permanent.
“It’s extremely important to them to know which of those waters it is,” Martin emphasizes. “If there’s little water so the well can continue to produce gas or if there’s enough oil to justify continuing to pump the water, they’ll keep pumping. But if it’s natural water, they’ll usually abandon it and move on.”
However, the biggest problems in oil wells is not the water that comes out with the oil but the “suspended matter” that remains in the fractures in the rock and can plug up the oil sources there. “Suspended matter” includes paraffin and asphalt particles, silt, sand, iron sulphide, iron oxide and others.
Martin says these impedimenta would be avoided entirely if the oil producer could continue to use a fresh supply of water, but after two or three years the water is being recycled and is liable to become contaminated with suspended matter. “They have to recycle it because the Railroad Commission forbids recovered water being left on the surface,” Martin explains. “The reason is to avoid surface and aquifer contamination.”
At present, the main means of ridding water of suspended matter is “flotation”: putting it into tanks and letting the paraffin and asphalt float to the top. It’s time-consuming and more expensive than using a continual flow of supply water, but it prevents contamination of the surface and aquifer.
As we said earlier, the next most significant source of Martin’s employment is the agricultural sector. Farmers and ranchers are concerned mostly about contamination from salt and septic tank seepage. “Nine out of ten salt-contaminated wells are caused by evaporated irrigation water,” Martin explains. “Well water with two hundred to three hundred parts salt is considered excellent irrigation water. After irrigation, however, ninety percent of the water will evaporate, and your soil now contains ten percent of the water left with two thousand to three thousand parts salt.”
Two or three such irrigations, and the salt content in the soil will be considerable. “Nevertheless,” Martin says, “if you’ve got good water wells, you will use up all your water before you ruin your soil, like what is happening to the Ogallala aquifer.”
The real danger is that the highly concentrated salt water will seep through the soil back into the well and ruin the water supply. One solution to the problem, cited by Martin, is to build subsurface drainage ditches, such as are common at Barstow, where the irrigation water can seep back into the Pecos River. “At other places, such as Dell City,” he added, “they use ‘leaching’, where you irrigate heavily enough to wash the salts down to below root level and hold it there.”
Another problem, which not only farmers and ranchers face but any home-owner with well-supplied house water, is the danger of bacterial contamination, usually caused by septic tank seepage. “The possibility of water being contaminated by a very serious source ― such as salmonella or cholera ― is so remote that you don’t think about it in the case of stock tanks,” Martin says, “but in the case of house water you worry about it even if the chance is remote.”
When Martin determines that some farmer or rancher has house water contaminated with bacteria, he suggests sterilization. If that doesn’t stop the problem, he suggests plugging the well with cement and digging another one.
Any new well should be dug at least one hundred feet away from the old well. Martin says he has known of wells being contaminated from as far away as one hundred and eighty feet from the source, however. “The trouble around here is that some of the sand and gravel is so large the bacterial contamination can extend further than one hundred feet,” he explains.
Waylan Martin opines that we will continue to have contamination problems with water as long as we are reliant on wells to supply it. “What I would like to see is a canal from Montana or even Canada all the way along the slope of the Rocky Mountains into South Texas,” Martin says. “They’ve got more water up there than they know what to do with, and it’s all going into the Mississippi and into the ocean. As long as that river is a cheap means of travel for barges, there won’t be any such canal built. They’ve got a powerful lobby.
“But, I believe it will be built one day, when the food shortage reaches a crisis stage. When Americans get hungry enough it will come about. I won’t see it, but you will.”
— Monahans News, May 29, 1980