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August 14, 2013

Fracking Becoming a Serious Stressor to Water Supplies

Fracking-in-Weld-County-COFracking in Weld County, Co. Photo by Shane Davis, Rocky Mountain Chapter Sierra Club/Lighthawk

By Sammy Roth, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas Intern

From the contamination of drinking water to the release of powerful greenhouse gases, the list of dangers posed by fracking and natural gas production seems to grow longer by the day. It has become increasingly clear that fracking—which involves pumping water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to create cracks in shale formations and release the natural gas trapped inside—is unsafe, unhealthy, and unsustainable. And as gas companies across the country have ramped up their fracking efforts, the drilling technique has started to exacerbate another serious concern: water scarcity.

Fracking a single well just once can require millions of gallons of water—sometimes up to 10 million—and wells are often fracked several times. When you consider the many thousands of wells that are fracked in the United States each year, it's no surprise that in water-scarce regions, fracking is already threatening the availability of clean, affordable water, and the viability of fisheries and other aquatic habitats. In states like Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming—where the natural gas industry is booming—the vast majority of fracking is taking place in extremely water-stressed areas, many of them plagued by drought.

Take, for example, Colorado's Weld County, which the World Resources Institute has categorized as an "extremely high stress" county in its water stress index. Last year, Weld suffered a drought so severe that the county commissioners declared a disaster situation. Weld is the largest agricultural county in Colorado, and as water supplies have dried up, farmers have been forced to cut back on production and sell off their cattle early.

Fracking-rig-in-Weld-CountyFracking operation in Weld County, Co. Photo by Shane Davis, Rocky Mountain Chapter Sierra Club/Lighthawk

"Giant agribusinesses have water rights secured, so they can continue their operations," says Dave Bryan, chair of the Sierra Club's Rocky Mountain Chapter. "It's small and medium-sized farmers who are having this issue."

In addition to suffering from water shortages, Weld is one of the most heavily fracked counties in the United States. In 2011, natural gas companies reported fracking more than 1,500 wells there—nearly 60 percent of all wells reported fracked in Colorado that year. In 2012, the number of fracked wells in Weld County jumped above 1,600, making up 65 percent of all fracked wells reported in the state.

No one knows exactly how many gallons of scarce water resources are used for fracking in Weld County each year, but the number is easily in the billions. And unlike municipal and agricultural wastewater—about half of which can be treated and reused—most fracking wastewater is so badly contaminated that it can't be returned to area streams or reused for non-fracking purposes, even if it's treated. To put those facts in context, the Western Resource Advocates organization has estimated that the amount of water needed to drill and frack new oil and gas wells in Colorado each year would be enough to serve between 150,000 and 300,000 people annually. The population of Weld County is approximately 250,000.

Fracking-in-Weld-CountyFracking next to housing in Weld County, Co. Photo by Shane Davis, Rocky Mountain Chapter Sierra Club/Lighthawk

Weld County farmers have been hit especially hard, because on top of their water scarcity concerns, they've started to see themselves priced out of the water market. One farmer recently told the Associated Press that while he used to be able to pay between $9 and $100 for an acre-foot of water at auctions, energy companies are now paying between $1,200 and $2,900 per acre-foot. With prices skyrocketing, it's becoming harder and harder for farmers to afford to irrigate their crops.

"What oil and gas has done, and drilling operations specifically, is hike up the price for water resources, making it more difficult for farmers to compete for water rights or forcing them to sell off water rights," Bryan says. "I don't think there are many options for farmers—I don't see what solutions exist for them."

By draining billions of gallons of water away from aquifers, rivers, streams, and wetlands, fracking also threatens fish and other aquatic wildlife. Several Colorado cities, for instance—including Greeley, the largest city in Weld County—have begun selling water to fracking companies from the Upper Colorado River, which is already highly diverted. This practice hurts fish, birds, and other wildlife, not only by reducing habitat sizes but by altering water temperatures and increasing the concentration of waterborne pollutants. Water withdrawals for fracking have already been cited as a factor in several endangered species determinations across the country.

Fracking-rig-in-Weld-CountyFracking operation in Weld County, Co. Photo by Shane Davis, Rocky Mountain Chapter Sierra Club/Lighthawk

Weld is an important case study, but it's far from the only place where diverting billions of gallons of water to the gas industry is exacerbating serious water shortages. In Texas, the start of a fracking boom on the Eagle Ford shale coincided with the worst year-long drought in state history, and at least one town has already run out of water largely due to fracking. In Louisiana, regulators had to order oil and gas companies to stop taking groundwater from the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer after it started to run dry. And in California—an agricultural powerhouse, and a state with a long history of severe droughts—oil and gas companies are planning a major surge of new fracking. Across the country, 47 percent of shale and tight oil wells are being developed in counties with either "high" or "extremely high" water stress, according to a recent report by the nonprofit organization Ceres.

As clean, affordable water supplies run low in these places and others, it's clearer than ever that we should not expand fracking into areas where it's not already occurring. It's also clear that where fracking is taking place, we need to do a better job of protecting local freshwater supplies, because water is more than just a valuable natural resource. Water is life—and we need to stop wasting it on gas drilling and start embracing a sustainable, clean-energy future.

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