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Fracking's Water Use Varies Across Colorado And Other Boom States

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Trucks pump water, sand and chemicals down a well during the hydraulic fracturing process.

Opponents of hydraulic fracturing often comment on its high water use. Yet a comprehensive total of just how much water used during the process has been hard to come by.  

A new U.S. Geological Survey study tallied up the amount of water used in fracking -- the process where water is injected underground, along with a mix of sand and chemicals, to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons. The analysis found that certain types of wells, in specific production basins, used a lot more water than others.

Tanya Gallegos, a research engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey and one of the study's co-authors, used data from the company IHS Energy to calculate water use for different wells in different basins across the country. She and her co-authors looked at water use during hydraulic fracturing for vertical wells, directional wells, and horizontal wells.

Although she wasn't able to analyze data on every single well in the country, Gallegos said the IHS data was fairly comprehensive, giving a good picture of water use in hydraulic fracturing.

"Up until now there has not been much publicly available comprehensive information on water use in hydraulic fracturing across the United States. And so what USGS really wanted to do is put this type of information into the public domain."

Gallegos did find patterns when she analyzed the data. Horizontal wells used the most water in the hydraulic fracturing process. She also found that wells drilled in shale gas formations used the most water.

Even in Colorado, the study's map of the results shows drastically different levels of water use in various parts of the state.

Credit U.S. Geological Survey.
U.S. Geological Survey.
Darker blue areas represent more water use from hydraulic fracturing.

The basins with the highest average water use were on the Gulf Coast, in Texas and in the Marcellus Shale, which runs through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and nearby states. None of the highest water use basins were in Colorado.

Wells in those high use basins used more than 2.6 million gallons of water per well, with the highest use per well hitting over 5 million gallons. (An Olympic-sized swimming pool holds around 660,000 gallons)

Gallegos said she hoped this knowledge would serve as a resource for communities discussing the water use of hydraulic fracturing. The study was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Water Resources Research


Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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