About twenty-five miles north of Fort Stockton sits what looks, at first blush, like an oasis amid the West Texas desert. When I recently visited what might be Texas’s newest sizable body of water, its color was a pleasant sea green. A flock of ducks circled in the sky above and landed on the choppy surface.
Yet Lake Boehmer covers more than sixty acres of scrubland with a noxious brew. You wouldn’t want to sate your thirst with its water, which is three times saltier than the ocean, with a sulfate level twenty-five times greater than legally allowed for drinking. Lake Boehmer belches hydrogen sulfide gas, which at low concentrations generates a rotten egg smell and at higher concentrations kills the occasional waterfowl and causes headaches and nausea in humans.
A muddy jetty pokes a couple of dozen feet out into the shallow lake. At its end is a partially submerged cement box around a wellhead. Spouting there is a toxic fountain, a mushroom head of water gushing at two hundred gallons a minute. It first appeared around 2003, though it’s unclear why the water started flowing then, and the lake has been growing ever since. Thanks to bureaucratic buck passing, it shows no sign of stopping.
Lake Boehmer flows from one of several abandoned wells near the tiny community of Imperial. Each of these wells appears to have been drilled in the forties or fifties, when wildcatters were plumbing the area in search of oil. Most of their wells came up dry for petroleum, but produced water of decent quality. Rather than plugging the wells, the oil companies deeded them over to landowners. For a time, they were used to irrigate farms, but most appear to have fallen into disuse in the decades since.
No one is sure who owns the Lake Boehmer well property. Forty different absentee owners have some shares of the various parcels onto which the lake flows, but the Pecos County Appraisal District doesn’t know for sure who owns what. Locals dubbed the body of water Lake Boehmer after a former landowner, Bernard Boehmer. That’s not an official name, but the term has made its way onto Google Maps. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation tried in 2005 to track down Bernard Boehmer, but sent a certified letter to an address in “O’Fallow, Missouri.” They likely meant O’Fallon, a St. Louis suburb. There’s no record of whether any other letter was sent, or if it reached him.
Ty Edwards, general manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, has spent a decade trying to figure out what to do with what he calls the “Dead Sea.” He contacted the Railroad Commission of Texas and urged it to put the more than thirty abandoned water wells in the vicinity of Imperial into the state’s orphaned well program. Texas spends about $3 million plugging about 120 wells each month. Edwards estimates it would cost between $50 million and $100 million to put an end to the flow at Lake Boehmer and three dozen nearby wells. The Railroad Commission “just received a bunch of money from the federal government to plug wells,” he said.
But the Railroad Commission says it has paperwork showing the oil well was converted to a water well, and so its hands are tied. “The RRC does not have jurisdiction over the well because it was a water well,” spokesman Andrew Keese told Texas Monthly in an email. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation likewise say they have no jurisdiction over abandoned water wells beyond notifying landowners of their responsibility to plug leaks.
Meanwhile, the Texas Water Development Board doesn’t have Lake Boehmer in its database at all. Edwards, at the groundwater conservation district, found an old letter from 1951 that he believes relates to the well. In it, the operator pledges to plug the well “any time it becomes polluted with mineral water or constitutes a menace to any oil or gas producing strata.” But that operator is no longer in business.
Robert Mace, executive director of the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, visited Lake Boehmer earlier this year and described it as “a place that is both gorgeous and terrifying—gorgeous due to the unexpected joy of a large body of water the color of the Caribbean and terrifying because flowing water is dissolving something in the subsurface, and all that salt is now leaking into shallower groundwater.” A time-lapse of satellite photos of Lake Boehmer makes plain that it’s continuing to grow in surface area. However, most of the water actually either evaporates or seeps into the shallow aquifer (about fifty feet underground), where it befouls one of the area’s main sources of water.
Yet no one has stepped up to plug the well or most of the other abandoned wells in its vicinity. Landowners like Schuyler Wight, a 58-year-old cattle rancher who owns the Santa Rosa ranch across the highway from Lake Boehmer, have been left to go it alone. “The oil company just dumped its liability,” he told me. These wells were drilled 2,600 feet down, much deeper than the typical 200-foot water well. Plugging a well like that is both expensive and tricky.
Wight should know. Earlier this month, he paused an attempt to plug one of these deep wells on his ranch. He spent more than $100,000 and poured at least a thousand sacks of cement into the well, which simply swallowed the cement and kept flowing a couple hundred gallons a minute. Then he ran out of money. “The wells are corroded. They are in very bad shape. There’s collapsed casing, collapsed wellbore, there’s cavities. There’s all kinds of problems,” he said.
Lake Boehmer has been allowed to exist and grow for nearly two decades. The cost of plugging it now is likely far greater than what it would have been in 2003. Makes you wonder what similar problems lie ahead—and who will take responsibility for them—in an aging oil field like the Permian Basin. Neglect is an option, but not a good one.