Water haulers in oil field find steady work, long hours

James Fenton
The Daily Times

One of those is water haulers, truck drivers who transport water and other materials from well sites to disposal stations across the San Juan Basin.

Saybra Greybear is a single mother of four children and spends 70 or more hours a week behind the wheel of a Mack truck hauling water in the oil field.

For the last nine years, Greybear, 42, has worked for Triple S Trucking Co., the transportation subsidiary company of Aztec Well, one of the longest-running independent oilfield service companies in the San Juan Basin.

Truck drivers at Triple S carry water and other materials to and from drilling and completion rigs, haul produced wastewater stored in pits or tanks at well sites to water treatment and disposal sites in service areas.

Greybear monitors and measures the liquids she carries, inputting data onto a laptop and smartphone while on site at a well pad and, later, when offloading her truck's tank at a water disposal facility.

Transporting water is necessary for most well servicing jobs, including completions, workovers and well maintenance operations.

Water trucks are outfitted with tanks that can hold from 80 to 110 barrels — each barrel consists of 42 gallons — of liquids in a single load.

On an average 14-hour day, she makes stops at about eight well sites, filling her truck's storage tank to capacity about four times before returning to the truck yard at 7:30 p.m. for final check-out before going home.

Behind the wheel of her 13-gear, 10-wheel truck, Greybear logs hundreds of miles a day on her rounds mostly along unpaved oilfield roads through canyons around San Juan County.

Greybear used to drive a school bus, which made the jump to the oilfield easier because she already had a Class B commercial driving license, a basic requirement to haul water, she said.

Being a water haul driver has been, in boom or bust, steady work that provides a sizable income, she said. Greybear's income has gone from $860 per month driving a school bus to $4,600 a month at Triple S, enough pay to feed four kids, have a comfortable home in nearby Bloomfield and purchase a new car a few years ago, she said.

Jason Sandel, Aztec Well's executive vice president, said his family's company has seen an increase in women working jobs like water truck hauler in the oilfield.

Since the fall in oil prices last fall, Aztec Well and its group of subsidiaries — Aztec Drilling, Triple S, Totah Rental and Equipment, Double M & Filter Services and Road Runner Fuels — has cut its workforce to remain in operation, Sandel said. Out of a combined total of 519 employees, 73 at Aztec Well are women.

"Those are the men and women that deliver energy for America's future," Sandel said. "These are jobs for those folks. That's why we've done it for 50 years. These are local jobs."

Aztec Well mandates that all of its workers receive full health care coverage costing roughly $25, $300 or $400 per month or waive coverage if they already have benefits through a spouse or family member, he said.

"We think we're the best employer in the county, if not the state," Sandel said.

Of Triple S's 174 employees, 98 are truck drivers in the company's fluid management division. Twenty-nine of those are women and all of them work as truck drivers.

For those who work daytime shifts like Greybear, they arrive at the Aztec yard at around 5:30 a.m. for a safety meeting and final check of the day's dispatch schedule before beginning routes.

Meloney Roper is a "pusher," a job that tasks her to manage a group of about 17 water truck drivers. Roper said she was the first female supervisor in the San Juan Basin and was a little intimidated when she interviewed for the job in a "room full of guys." Both Roper and Greybear said the oilfield has become more female-friendly in the last decade.

"The guys are used to us," Greybear said. "When I started, I was too busy dealing with the different terrains and the weather (to worry about) the guys. Everybody, for the most part, is friendly. Rig hands are okay. They'll feed you, bring me a plate of fajitas. They'll back you up, offer to help you. Everyone is real respectful. It feels like everybody's pretty much (treated) the same."

Roper said her group is made up of mostly workers in their 30s and 40s like Greybear, but she has a new driver in his early 20s and one driver who just turned 72 this year.

Working in the oilfield also means long hours for her, but she finds the work is both a sacrifice and ultimately fulfilling, she said. "I spend more time with my drivers than I do with my own family," Roper said. "Our drivers sacrifice a lot."

Those sacrifices add up to more than time away from home.

Greybear said water haulers face hazardous road conditions that include snow and mud as well as encounters with wildlife like bears and snakes, reckless or distracted drivers and fighting exhaustion while working long hours.

"It's always something different every day," Greybear said. "I was once stuck (on one side of) a wash in Lybrook. It was a three-foot drop even pickup trucks couldn't cross. I had to wait it out before I finally made it home."

Safety is the mantra at Triple S, Greybear said. That, along with an income that has improved the quality of life for her family, makes the job something she plans to continue doing.

"Our upper management say all the time at safety meetings that our drivers are the company," Roper said. "If we didn't have (truck drivers hauling water and other materials), we wouldn't have a company."

However, Roper said "rig-up" drivers believe they are higher in the pecking order and sometimes try to put the water haulers in their place.

"Rig-up drivers do think that we're the little peons," she said. "Sometimes we do get attitude. Rig-up drivers believe they're better than water-haul drivers."

Sandel said the friction stems from the difference in how the two kinds of drivers are paid. Water haulers like Greybear are paid by the hour on a regular five- to six-days-per-week schedule while rig-up drivers work on a contract-to-contract basis, earning more pay in bursts with a lot of unpaid downtime in between. At the end of the year, both drivers' pay, Sandel said, balances out, but that doesn't mean the two drivers see it that way.

Roper said misconceptions about oilfield truck drivers by oilfield workers and the public alike tend to cast the driver as performing a simple task that requires little skill.

"People think what we do is easy, that there's not a hazard to it," she said. "Every time they climb in these trucks, they put their lives on the line. We deal with gasses and roads that people wouldn't drive on. Our job is not just driving. It's so much more than that."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.