Gas flare, photo courtesy of Ricardo Romo.
When the first oil discovery well was drilled in La Salle County in 2008, an influx of people descended on the small community seemingly overnight. Early days of the Eagle Ford Shale oil boom were full of activity and uncertainty - huge trucks ran on rural roads, workers sought housing, hotels sprung up, residents rented backyard RV space with makeshift hookups. Now one of the largest oil plays in the world at 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, the Eagle Ford Shale still produces over a million barrels of crude oil and condensate each day. Activity peaked in 2014, however; Plummeting oil prices in 2016 triggered an exodus of workers that left a devastated landscape behind. The region's natural richness has been a much-needed economic generator, but less attention has been paid to the effects of the oil boom on South Texas communities. While some locals became overnight millionaires, others were displaced when they couldn't keep up with housing market increases.
While visiting the Field Museum in Chicago Dr. Harriett Romo, director of the Mexico Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio, viewed an anthropological exhibit about North Dakota's shale boom and was inspired to document how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has permanently changed South Texas's landscape and housing. Fracking involves drilling into the brittle shale rock and injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals, which opens existing cracks and allows oil and natural gas to be extracted from thousands of feet below the Earth's surface. Romo partnered with the UTSA Institute for Economic Development, submitting a grant idea to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Project researchers focused on housing in Dimmit, La Salle, and Zavala counties.
"Affordable housing is essential for people to work, educate their children, feel safe and comfortable, and have family relationships," said Romo at the May 12 opening of The Other Side of the Eagle Ford Shale, an exhibit documenting the collective's findings that can be viewed at the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures until October 1, 2017. "There are many ways we can use some of this wealth from oil and gas exploration to invest in our communities and make the future of South Texas a positive one for those that live there and those coming in."
Abandoned man-camp in Crystal City, photo courtesy of Alexandra Romero.
Sue Ann Pemberton, FAIA, assistant professor in practice in the UTSA College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, led a related spring 2017 community building design studio that supported Romo's efforts. Sixteen fourth-year undergraduates broadly researched the impact of the oil boom and fracking on area housing, including temporary and informal housing, schools, the environment, health, agriculture and livestock, economic impact, migration, government, corruption, and life in general. After describing the issue that impacted them most and how design could play a positive role, each came up with a "big idea" to improve quality of life.
"My favorite part was being allowed the freedom to decide what idea we wanted to pursue," said UTSA architecture student Katherine Marple. "It made us much more interested in our projects and we wanted to give 110 percent."
There are myriad environmental concerns about fracking and its byproducts, but Marple and her class-mates Trevor Shorts, James Woods, and Clinton Thorp focused on polluted fracking water. Currently, the fracked water stands in open-air tanks and slowly evaporates. Shorts contemplated toxicity and wastefulness in a region historically affected by drought. Inspired by several proven projects including Shanghai's Houtan Park - a regenerative living landscape built on a former industrial brownfield site - he and the group propose a constructed wetlands in the colonias outside Crystal City. The long, linear wetland would collect fracked water at one end, filter it through a series of plants and micro-organisms that absorb and break down pollutants, and yield safe recycled water for farming, irrigation, or recreation.
An interrelated project explored the use of compacted earth blocks as a sustainable, modular housing type that could expand as family needs evolved. Informal housing is prevalent in the area; if a community purchased the ma-chine needed to make blocks, residents could rent it. Multiple earthen homes could also be integrated with one larger wetland, promoting more community involvement and collaboration.
"It was most interesting to talk about our projects with the mayor of Crystal City and other officials," said Woods. "You really have the opportunity to sell your idea and show why it's specifically for their area."
A large-scale constructed wetland could promote collaboration and rehabilitation between oil companies, communities, and nature. A boardwalk running through the wetland would promote recreational activity and social interaction, making it a community asset, while safe recycled water could be sold back to oil companies for further fracking.
Several students converted abandoned hotels into senior and workforce housing, while another turned a Fair-field Inn into an emergency hospital for a community with no existing medical facilities. Other projects engage with abandoned "man-camps" - modular home and RV parks that housed oil workers - with one approach trans-forming them into Marfa-inspired arts communities. To increase energy efficiency in modular homes, another project implemented modest improvements such as solar panels, shade structures, and insulation.
"Giving [city officials] a 'big idea' book they can take to funders really makes a difference," said UTSA Mexico Center Project Coordinator Alexandra Romero, noting the exhibit will be documented for future researchers. "When funders review, not only are you saying 'We need a hospital.' You're showing how to create one with a built environment we already have and a plan we're already working on."
South Texas communities were among the hardest hit when oil prices swung from more than $100 per barrel in 2015 to less than $30 a year ago. Though thousands of workers lost their jobs during the slump, prices have rebounded and stabilized, which should keep Texas shale plays growing. The cyclical nature of oil boom and bust is part of Texas culture, after all. Though it's impossible to predict when the cycle will return, local leaders may have enough time to use what's been learned to build stronger, more stable communities and affordable housing for citizens in the future.VISIT WEBSITE
The spring 2017 architecture project team was made up of Sue Ann Pemberton, FAIA, and UTSA students Jeffry Armstrong, Jocelyne Cisneros, Aleida Gonzalez, Calvin Legg, Katherine Marple, Irina Ness, Jhali Olivares, Antonio Olivares, Gabriela Pena, Myles Redix, Mauricio Reyes, Trevor Shorts, Justin Stafford, Clinton Thorp, Tiffany Vargas and James Woods.
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Community Connect magazine is an annual publication produced by the Office of the Vice President for Community Services (VPCS). The mission of Community Services is to extend UTSA beyond its campuses into San Antonio and South Texas through public service, extension, outreach and community education. This mission is accomplished through a variety of programs and initiatives, some of which are showcased on this website.Make a Gift