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Fracking: Part 2, Public Water for Private Profit

Posted by on January 9, 2013

In my last blog I mentioned that the USGS has reported finding a vein of natural gas in Massachusetts and that this opens the possibility of fracking coming to a town near us.  I also mentioned that EPA recently released a progress report on their investigation into environmental issues related to fracking and that in that report they divided the fracking process into five stages: water acquisition, chemical mixing, well injection, flowback and produced water, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal.  In this blog I would like to take a look at the first of those stages; water acquisition.  This is the stage in which the fracking companies acquire and bring to the site the water they will need for their fracking operations.

Here is EPA’s description of the water acquisition stage of fracking.

“Estimates of water needs per well have been reported to range from 65,000 gallons for coalbed methane (CBM) production up to 13 million gallons for shale gas production, depending on the characteristics of the formation being fractured and the design of the production well and fracturing operation (GWPC and ALL Consulting, 2009; Nicot et al., 2011). Five million gallons of water are equivalent to the water used by approximately 50,000 people for one day.”

So how much water does fracking actually use?  In the draft plan of their study, published in 2011, EPA had this to say.

“EPA estimates that approximately 35,000 wells are fractured each year across the United States. Assuming that the majority of these wells are horizontal wells, the annual water requirement may range from 70 to 140 billion gallons. This is equivalent to the total amount of water used each year in roughly 40 to 80 cities with a population of 50,000 or about 1 to 2 cities of 2.5 million people.”

[Moving this much water requires a large number of trucks.  According to an article in The Nation, "Drilling and fracking a single well requires 2,000 truck trips..."  They are referring to large tanker trucks.   Here's an interesting discussion of this topic in Bloomberg Businessweek.  Here's another interesting web posting.]

So the fracking industry uses water at the same rate as about 40 to 80 cities, each about 25% larger than Pittsfield.  But it’s worse than that, because fracking is a growth industry.  These numbers are going to get bigger year after year.

And there’s an important difference between water used by cities and water used by the fracking industry.  Water used by a city’s residential customers remains in the hydrologic cycle.  It remains useable for future generations.  In other words, it isn’t actually “used up.”  Water is returned to nature and to groundwater after having passed through municipal wastewater treatment plants.  This is not what happens to the water used by the fracking industry. 

Water used in fracking is first mixed with a number of toxic chemicals (more on that when I discuss phase two of the process) and then pumped deep into the ground to fracture bedrock and release natural gas (stage three).  Some of this water (between 30% and 70% of it) is then brought back up to the surface.  The rest of the toxic water (again 30% to 70% of it) remains underground.  Most if not all of the water that is brought back up to the surface is hopelessly contaminated and is usually disposed of by injecting it deep underground, in the hope that it will never again come in contact with people or wildlife (more on this when I discuss phases five of the process) or by containing it in lined pools.  In any case, most of the water used by fracking is lost to us forever.  In effect, the fracking industry is poisoning water at the same rate that 40 to 80 cities use it.

Should we care that the fracking process uses large volumes of water and makes that water unusable?  We should.  According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, if current water use and population trends continue, farmers will not have enough water to produce food for the expected population in 2050. 

We don’t have to wait until 2050 to see signs that we are already in a water crisis, and we don’t have to look beyond our own borders. 

In the United States, the major concerns are the lowering of water levels in aquifers, water shortages, especially in the West and Southwest, and the drought that is currently gripping most of the nation and which shows no sign of improving soon. 

 The Ogallala Aquifer in the Great Plains is one of the world’s largest known aquifers having an approximate area of 225,000 square miles.  It underlies parts of eight states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas, and supplies about 27% of this country’s irrigated farmland.  It formed millions of years ago, and recharges from groundwater and rainfall very slowly.  The problem is, we’re pumping water out of it much more quickly than it is able to recharge.  As a result, the water level in the Ogallala Aquifer is dropping as much as two feet per year.  According to a USGS report, the Ogallala’s water levels have dropped more than 150 feet in some regions since 1940.  In some places, aquifer levels have dropped to levels that preclude use of the water as a source of irrigation.  The water depletion rate right now is about double its historic rates.  This area is our primary agricultural region.  Some researchers believe that, as enormous as this aquifer is, it may be drained to the point where it is no longer a useful source of water in about 20 to 30 years.

Water sources in other areas are also being used faster than they are being recharged.  According to a report from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, California’s Central Valley lost enough water between the years 2003 and 2009 to fill Lake Mead.  Water withdrawals continue to exceed recharge rates.

The Colorado River supplies water to seven western and southwestern states.  These states use about one fifth of all the water withdrawn in the United States.  For the past forty years, the Colorado River has no longer reached the ocean; depleted by agriculture, increasing average temperatures, reduced snowpack, the drying up of one of its major tributaries, and an increasing population, it is dry before it gets there.  This is now the case for many of our rivers.   

The Mississippi River is at historically low levels.  Industry groups and Federal agencies are struggling to keep it open to barge traffic.

The water supply of Lincoln, Nebraska is being threatened by the drying up of the Platte River.  Even the Rio Grande, the river that defines the international border between the US and Mexico, no longer reaches the sea. 

This water shortage is leading to water wars (in the legal sense) in the West and Southwest.  Towns and states routinely take each other to court over water rights and water allocation issues.  The Supreme Court is currently settling a water dispute between Texas and Oklahoma.

The situation is less dire here in the northeast, but here’s a photo from Ipswich, Massachusetts where municipalities and industries have taken all the Ipswich River has to give, despite local water bans.

Ipswich River Dry

 This situation won’t get better on its own.  The United States is currently in the worst drought since the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  According to the EPA, “At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages by 2013, even under non-drought conditions.” [emphasis added] 

Here’s the most recent (January 1) drought map released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its partners.


Map showing current extent of the drought in US


With the water crisis upon us, do we really want to allow the fracking industry to not only use water at the rate of 40 to 80 cities, but to pollute that water in such a way as to make it unusable forever?  Life depends on water.  This is a law of biology that is not negotiable.  Allowing the fracking industry to do this to our water supply is foolish, short-sighted, and self-destructive.

More to come.

5 Responses to Fracking: Part 2, Public Water for Private Profit

  1. Bruce Winn

    Thanks, John.
    “Globally, 1.2 billion people live in areas with inadequate water supply… 1.6 billion live in areas where there is water, but they can’t afford to drink it. Global water demands will increase by 40% in the next ten years.”
    The above quotes are from Business Insider.

    We need to examine our priorities and change many of our behaviors, attitudes, and habits.


  2. John F. Messerschmitt

    The world wide water shortage has been with us for enough years that there are demographic predictions that major wars will erupt over water before long. Bruce’s article is well researched and extremely well written and should be made available to citizens and elected officials alike. Thank you Bruce!

  3. Bruce Winn

    Thanks, Karen and Don,
    We all have to keep spreading the word, alerting people to the facts that climate change and the water crisis are threats to society and to wildlife. Each of these crises exacerbates the other, and fracking contributes to both.

  4. Don Munger

    We need to make fracking illegal. Period. No room for discussion.

  5. karen

    Great article. It is so important to make people aware of the water problems we face.

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