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Published June 24, 2013, 10:51 AM

Fracking fuels water fights

Regions where the practice is most common are mired in drought.

By: Garance Burke , Associated Press

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 from beneath the Earth’s surface.

Hydraulic fracturing, or the drilling technique commonly known as fracking, has been used for decades to blast huge volumes of water, fine sand and chemicals into the ground to crack open valuable shale formations.

But now, as energy companies vie to exploit vast reserves west of the Mississippi, fracking’s new frontier is expanding to the same lands where crops have shriveled and waterways have dried up because of severe drought.

In Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, the majority of the counties where fracking is occurring are also suffering from drought, according to an Associated Press analysis of industry-compiled fracking data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official drought designations.

While fracking typically consumes less water than farming or residential uses, the exploration method is increasing competition for the precious resource, driving up the price of water and burdening already depleted aquifers and rivers in certain drought-stricken stretches.

Some farmers and city leaders worry that the fracking boom is consuming too much of a scarce resource, while others see the push for production as an opportunity to make money by selling water while furthering the nation’s goal of energy independence.

The new player

Along Colorado’s Front Range, fourth-generation farmer Kent Peppler says 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 deep-pocketed energy companies have driven up the price of water.

“There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas,” says Peppler, of Mead, Colo., who also serves as president of the 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 says he would pay anywhere from $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. But these days, energy companies are paying 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 the oil company Anadarko 2.4 billion gallons of excess treated sewer water.

In South Texas, where drought has forced cotton farmers to scale back, local water officials say drillers are contributing to a drop in the water table in several areas.

The Eagle Ford, extending from the Mexican border into East Texas, began to boom in 2011, just as Texas struggled with the worst one-year drought in its history. While conditions have improved, most of the state is still dealing with some level of drought, and many reservoirs and aquifers have not been fully replenished.

“The oil industry is doing the big fracks and pumping a substantial amount of water around here,” says Ed Walker, general manager of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, which manages an aquifer that serves as the main water source for farmers and about 29,000 people in three counties.

“When you have a big problem like the drought and you add other smaller problems to it like all the fracking, then it only makes things worse,” Walker says.

Water requirements

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, while 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 may draw their water for free from underground aquifers or rivers, or may buy and lease supplies belonging to water districts, cities and farmers. Some of the industry’s largest players are also investing in high-tech water recycling systems to frack with gray or brackish water.

In some states, regulators have stepped in to limit the volume or type of water that energy companies can use during drought conditions.

“The oil and gas industry is a small but significant player,” says Jon Monson, director of the city’s water department, which has designated 35 fire hydrants where haulers may fill up their tanks to truck to gas wells. “Just knowing that oil and gas is a boom-and-bust industry, we are trying to not get used to it as a source of revenue because we know it won’t last.”

In Ventura County, at the southern tip of the Monterey Shale and an hour north of Los Angeles, drought-induced pressures on local water systems are already visible; one local water district predicts some groundwater wells will go dry by summer.

David Schwabauer, a fourth-generation farmer in the county, says overtures by companies that want to drill new wells amid his avocado and lemon groves are prompting difficult conversations about how to manage the family farm. One orchard relies on irrigation from an overdrawn aquifer, while the other is kept alive using expensive water piped in from the distant Sierra Nevada mountains.

“Some parts of the family have very strong feelings against it, given the challenges that we face environmentally,” Schwabauer says. “But other parts of the family are very comfortable with it because we still have to stay in business. We still haven’t reached a decision.”

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