Fracking, Farmers and Scarce Water Supplies

As drought plagues more than half of the nation, concerns about hydraulic fracturing's effect on available water are increasing.
by | August 10, 2012
 

By Jim Malewitz, Stateline Staff Writer

“We’ve had dry years, and we’ve had hot years,” says Tom Giessel, who grows wheat, corn and sorghum in Pawnee County, Kansas. “Now we’re experiencing both.”

As drought continues to grip Kansas and much of the country, water is only getting harder to find in Pawnee, one of 102 Kansas counties under a federal disaster declaration.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Giessel would be suspicious of any competition for his land’s lifeblood -- and right now, the most conspicuous competitors are oil and gas drillers, who are moving into Kansas and reviving the state's long-dormant energy industry.

Thanks to advances in technology -- largely the advent of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- drillers are able to tap oil reserves once thought to be unreachable.

But the new technique requires water, lots of it. And Giessel, who is also a trained geologist, is concerned about the long term impact of drillers on water supplies. He worries that under a new state water banking system, small-time farmers in need of extra water won’t be able to compete with deep-pocketed energy companies.

“Water’s going to flow towards the money," he says.

Under the still-developing system, one of several major overhauls pushed through this year by Governor Sam Brownback, water rights holders can bank their reserves and sell them to the highest bidder. State regulators say the change will help move water where it's needed.

For well-resourced farmers or municipalities, it means they can make some extra money selling off excess water. But Giessel isn't cheering the change, which was supported by energy companies.

"I think water's one of those things that should be not-for-profit," he says. "But I'm a different duck than some of the others."

As oil and gas development continues largely unabated, the water-intensive industry’s impact on local resources is increasingly coming into question, particularly in drilling hotbeds stricken by the crop-shriveling drought now covering close to two-thirds of the continental U.S.

In much of the West, water supplies have long been dwindling due to population expansion and climate change. This year’s drought, coupled with an uptick in drilling, is what Jason Bane, of the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, calls a perfect storm. “[Drought] is changing the way people are looking at things,” says Bane, whose group is advocating for more study of fracking’s effect on available water.

Millions of Gallons

How much does fracking impact the availability of water? That depends on geography — and on how you define impact.

So far, there has been little comprehensive research about how seriously fracking strains scarce water supplies. “It all is, at this point, pretty much anecdotal,” says Tony Willardson, executive director of the Western States Water Council.

This much is known: Depending on the depth of the drilling, it can take anywhere from 2 to 12 million gallons of water to frack one well. Those numbers may appear staggering to laymen. But energy companies downplay them, preferring instead to compare their own consumption to that of the heaviest users.

For instance, according to a factsheet released in May by Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas, the company’s water use in the Niobrara Shale region — which stretches across parts of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming — amounts to just a fraction of the 82 percent of water used by agriculture or even the 8 percent taken up by the public water supply.

But environmental groups frame the issue differently. Earlier this year, Western Resource Advocates released a report estimating that drilling companies were consuming enough water to meet the needs of between 66,400 and 118,400 households.

The industry is researching ways to reduce water use and improve treatment and recycling. But with current technology, returning water to its natural cycle remains a daunting, costly task. And with each new well and construction of the infrastructure around it, the industry's water footprint grows.

Plenty of Groundwater — For Now

In most drilling states, water officials say fracking isn’t a problem in the short term.

Though many states, particularly in the West, are seeing rivers and streams shrink to dangerously low levels, few drillers there are relying on those surface waters, which are more readily impacted by dry spells.

In Kansas, the department of agriculture won’t grant water rights on those impaired waters — to drilling companies or anyone else. As a result, drillers there continue to shift towards groundwater, which, officials say, is plentiful enough for now.

Such is the case in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, where regulators say they’ve seen few conflicts between drilling companies and rights holders downstream because few drillers are drawing from rivers and streams.

Compared to other uses, fracking so far has had a “relatively minor” impact on Oklahoma’s water resources, says Brian Vance of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board. But that’s not to say officials in Oklahoma aren’t concerned about fracking’s eventual impact on supply. Oklahoma is working to overhaul its broad water policy amid predictions of a 33 percent increase in demand over the next 50 years. “It’s an issue," Vance says. "It’s certainly something we’re looking at.”

In the short term, says Vance, echoing several resource managers, it’s easier to observe the local impact of drilling, rather than the aggregate. “If you have a lot of activity in one area — and certainly you see that with oil and gas — that is a concern,” he says. But so far in Oklahoma, Vance says he’s heard just one complaint from someone who accused an oil and gas company of impacting his water rights.

In the East

In the eastern United States, the story is a bit different. States such as Pennsylvania haven’t been hit as hard by drought, but dry conditions in the lucrative Marcellus Shale region breeds greater impact for drilling companies, which are more reliant on small rivers and streams that respond more quickly to the weather. As a result, some drillers have seen their water rights suspended.

In mid-July, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a federal-state entity that regulates water in the 27,000 square mile watershed touching Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York, announced it had temporarily revoked 64 withdrawal permits, most of which belonged to oil and gas developers.

The number of suspensions, which can change quickly based upon rainfall, has since hovered in the 30s and 40s. Susan Obleski, the commission’s spokesperson, says permit suspensions have increased this year. And since 2008, most permit suspensions have been associated with increased drilling.

Moratorium

In eastern Ohio, where drilling is expected to peak in the next two years, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District wants to move beyond the anecdotes before allowing oil and gas developers to tap its water reserves. In June, the district, which spans about 20 percent of the state, placed a moratorium on water sales, pending an extensive federal study of resource availability. That puts holds on 12 requests from drillers.

The district is abundant with water and has fared well during the drought, says Darrin Lautenberger, its spokesperson. On the other hand, he adds, “our staff and board wanted to have as much information as possible.”

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