Fracking fuels water fights in dry spots
SAN FRANCISCO — The latest domestic energy boom is sweeping through some of the nation's driest pockets, drawing millions of gallons of water to unlock oil and gas reserves underground.
Hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique commonly known as fracking, blasts huge volumes of water, fine sand and chemicals into the ground to crack open valuable shale formations. But fracking's new frontier is expanding to lands where crops have shriveled and waterways have dried up because of severe drought.
In Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, most counties where fracking occurs are suffering from drought, according to an Associated Press analysis of industry-compiled data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's official drought designations.
Though fracking typically consumes less water than farming or residential uses, the exploration method is increasing competition for water, driving up its price and burdening depleted aquifers and rivers.
Some farmers and city leaders worry the fracking boom will consume too much of a scarce resource. Others see the push for production as an opportunity to make money by selling water while furthering the nation's goal of energy independence.
Along Colorado's Front Range, fourth-generation farmer Kent Peppler said he is fallowing some of his corn fields this year because he can't afford to irrigate the land for the full growing season, in part because energy companies have driven up the price of water.
“There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas,” said Peppler, of Mead, Colo., who is president of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “And certainly they are in a position to pay a whole lot more than we are.”
In a normal year, Peppler said he would pay $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. These days, energy companies pay some cities $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot. The Denver suburb of Aurora made a $9.5 million, five-year deal last summer to provide oil company Anadarko with 2.4 billion gallons of excess treated sewer water.
In South Texas, where drought forced cotton farmers to scale back, water officials said drillers are contributing to a drop in the water table in several areas.
For example, they draw as much as 15,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer to frack wells in the southern half of the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the nation's most profitable oil and gas fields.
That's equal to about half the water recharged annually into the southern portion of the aquifer, said Ron Green, a scientist with the nonprofit Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
The amount of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well varies greatly, depending on how hard it is to extract oil and gas from each geological formation. In Texas, the average well requires up to 6 million gallons of water. In California, each well requires 80,000 to 300,000 gallons, according to estimates by government and trade associations.
Depending on state and local water laws, frackers can draw water for free from underground aquifers or rivers, or buy and lease supplies belonging to water districts, cities and farmers. Some of the industry's largest players are investing in high-tech water recycling systems to frack with gray or brackish water.
Some environmental groups argue that planners should let the public weigh in on how much drilling can be supported in drought-stricken areas.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Shale gas violations down as DEP steps up inspections
- Week yields lessons on China
- ‘Rank and yank’ doesn’t meet all expectations
- Fund fees within investor control
- Macy’s prepares outlet stores
- Hackers have wide reach
- Allstate patents driver analysis
- Small investors aren’t panicking over Wall Street plunge
- Regulators expect lawsuit over oil, gas rules process
- Crash-prevention technology changes face of auto industry
- Low prices, tough regulations threaten independent oil producers