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Spread of Fracking Leads to Fears of Water Shortages in Colorado

KUNC file photo

This morning, Colorado regulators are expected to finalize new rules that will require oil and gas companies to make public the chemicals they use to hydraulically fracture wells.  Much of the attention lately has been whether those “fracking” fluids that are mixed with sand and chemicals pose a risk to polluting ground water.  But in Colorado there’s been far less scrutiny on just how much water the fracking process itself requires, until now.

New Technologies

Water, and whether there will be enough of it to go around has long been a concern on the arid plains of northeastern Colorado.  And now the balance between urban sprawl and farming has to contend with what could be the West’s next big mining boom.    

“The oil and gas industry is not new to this area,” says Eric Wilkenson, general manager of Northern Water.  “But the water requirements brought about by hydraulic fracturing and things like that that are now state of the art in the industry, are resulting in additional water demands.” 

Officials at Northern, the agency that pumps and pipes water from the western slope to Front Range cities and farms, say it’s not clear how much water the industry will require.  Some geologists speculate more than a billion barrels of oil could lie in the Niobrara shale formation – much of it under Weld County and within Northern’s jurisdiction.

“All we know is it appears to us there’s going to be a substantial demand for water by that industry in the coming years,” Wilkenson says.

So Wilkenson says Northern is trying to be proactive.  It’s proposing new regulations to ensure that its water is only being leased to fracking companies for use within the agency’s boundaries in the South Platte River basin, in accordance with state and federal water laws.

Scramble Mode

Drew Beckwith, water policy manager for the Boulder-based conservation group Western Resource Advocates, says many agencies and local governments are in scramble mode because the drilling boom is happening so fast, and much of the public’s attention so far has been on whether fracking itself is safe.

“But the water quantity side is just as big of a concern, because Northern like many other places has more demands for their water than they can currently supply,” Beckwith says. 

Beckwith says it’s been widely estimated that fracking a single well can take anywhere from one to six million gallons of water. 

“If we go willy nilly into providing water for fracking, five to ten years down the road we could be saying ‘oh crap, we’re running out of water’ and at that point it’s really too late to do anything about it,” he says.

And with at least one company’s very publicannouncement that it’s planning a major drilling expansion on the Front Range, there’s every indication the water supply will get more strained.

Leasing Becoming Lucrative

It’s also clear that the increasingly common practice of cities selling their water to oil companies will continue, at least in wet years like this one.  Greeley alone has made about $1.5 million dollars selling more than 400 million gallons of water so far this year.

That practice got more scrutiny during a recent public hearing on Northern’s proposed new fracking rules. Officials from cities like Greeley that lie in the heart of the drilling boom say the water companies themselves ought to be providing Northern with assurances that its water is being used within its boundaries. 

Still, Dick Lefler, utilities director for the town of Frederick, said the agency deserves better accounting of where the water is going.

“The oil and gas industry is an important part of our economy and we wish to continue to support this industry while meeting the needs of the district,” Lefler said.   

But Lefler and others worry the proposed rules are so punitive that they would halt the leasing of water for fracking all together. 

That, said Kent Holsinger of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, would hurt a fragile economic recovery.

“This remarkable technology that could help supply domestic energy for many, many years to come, could be at risk if reliable water supplies are not available to do that,” Holsinger said.

Northern officials argue curtailing economic growth is not the intent behind the rules.

“But we do have to protect the integrity of the water supplies that we provide to the region,” says Eric Wilkenson.

Just how much of the region’s water is going to be needed down the road, and how much is being used now for fracking should be born out in the coming months, say water policy analysts, as more studies are done and agencies like Northern get more data. 

Northern expects to finalize its new rules after the first of the year.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.