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.