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Nearly half of the wells hydraulically fractured (indicated by black dots) in the United States are located in areas of high or extremely high water stress (shown in red and dark red). Graphic courtesy of Ceres
Even as concerns arise about the threats hydraulic fracturing poses to water quality and human health, a new study released yesterday finds that the water demands of the “fracking” process are adding considerably to localized water depletion, especially in parts of Texas, Colorado, and California.
Nearly half of the fracking wells in operation since 2011 are located in regions with high or extremely high water stress, according to the report by Ceres, a non-profit organization that works with investors and businesses to promote more sustainable practices.
Competition for water between cities, farms, and industries is already tight in those water-stressed areas, posing risks of supply disruptions during times of drought. Rivers and wetlands often suffer from insufficient flows in such areas, and depletion of groundwater is common.
While agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water in the western states, “fracking is the latest party to come to the table,” said Monika Freyman, author of the report and senior manager in Ceres’s water program, during a teleconference. In some ways it’s “the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back.”
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure so as to fracture shale rock and release the oil and gas it holds. Combined with the technique of horizontal drilling, it has made previously inaccessible fossil fuel reserves economical to tap, and fracking operations have spread rapidly across the country and in many parts of the world.
Each hydraulically fracked well can use 2-8 million gallons of water, with 4-5 million gallons per well being fairly common.
To perform its analysis, Ceres overlaid data on the number and location of fracking wells from the FracFocus database (obtained via PacWest Consulting Partners’ FracDB) onto maps of water stress prepared by the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.
In addition to finding that nearly half of the 39,294 fracking wells analyzed were situated in high or extremely high water-stressed areas, Ceres found that more than 55 percent were in regions experiencing drought and more than 36 percent were in zones where groundwater is being depleted, including west Texas and California’s Central Valley, where depletion will intensify this year due to the record-breaking drought.
Even if the water used by fracking operators is a small percentage of a state’s total water use, it can account for a very high share in particular counties.
In Colorado, for example, 89 percent of the water used for fracking in the state’s two major shale energy plays is concentrated in just two counties, and both are categorized as extremely water-stressed – Garfield County, where fracking’s water use totaled 1.9 billion gallons in 2012, and Weld County, where it totaled 1.3 billion gallons.
Colorado and Texas counties with high water stress and high water use for fracking. Graphic courtesy of Ceres.
By 2015, Colorado’s statewide water demand for fracking is expected to double to 6 billion gallons, according to the report.
In drought-plagued Texas, which the report calls “ground zero” for water supply risks due to the rapid expansion of shale energy production in recent years, several counties with intensive fracking operations have declared water emergencies.
The Permian Basin shale play in west Texas overlaps parts of the Ogallala Aquifer, which has been undergoing steady depletion for decades, largely due to the water demands of irrigated farming.
These findings present some big challenges for both the water-stressed counties where fracking is expanding, and for the companies doing the fracking. As competition for water intensifies, the risk of shortages – especially in drought-prone regions – increases. The potential for supply shortfalls poses operational risks to the energy producers as well as risks of rationing and other emergency measures to the wider community.
The Ceres report comes none too soon. With hydraulic fracturing expanding rapidly, the water risks posed by these rising demands will only increase.
Among the actions Ceres calls for is fuller disclosure by shale-energy companies as to how much water they use and from which sources, the development of plans (in conjunction with other stakeholders) to protect local water sources and watersheds, and more concerted efforts to reduce water use through investments in water efficiency and recycling.
The fracking train has long ago left the station, but the institution of enforceable procedures and practices to ensure the protection of water supplies has lagged badly behind.
Until that’s remedied, the public is right to take action to slow the train down.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.
Peak Resources investigates the growing concern of global water stress. It is no big secret that the world population of humans is growing at an exponential rate. The growth of the human population has caused almost every nation around the globe to focus its attention on the available of freshwater for the future while some nations must focus on having fresh water today. Add into the mix the continual pressure from global climate change, and you have a lot of trouble. Hotter temperatures mean less ground water, shallower lakes, and rivers, and less water for crops, drinking, and bathing. To set this into motion, MIT researchers developed a new tool that models the ability of the hydrologic cycle to meet the growing needs of the world population through the year 2050.
Water resources are tied to populations of people. By 2050, the world population, is expected to rise to 9.7 Billion. Of those 9.7 billion people, 5 billion are expected to be living in water-stressed communities or regions. Of those 5 billion people, 1 billion are expected to live where there is not enough water to meet daily needs of people, environment, and agriculture. For some nations, this is not news, India, and Middle Eastern countries are already facing water stress issues.
What the MIT model does is it allows researchers to look at the two variables that are going to have the most impact on freshwater over time. Those being socioeconomics, and global climate change. What they find when they look into how the socioeconomic data changes over time, they discovered that the rate at which populations grow and the changes to economic growth lead to situations of water-stress. What they are talking about are emerging markets, where water is already limited. The impact of the situation is made worse by adding in global climate change.
Results of the MIT Model
As populations of villages and cities grow more food is needed, more drinking water is needed, and more water is needed for industry, but water is finite and the amount of available water is decreased as temperatures rise. But emerging markets and developing countries are not the only people hit by water issues and global warming. The study shows that developed nations are also going to feel increased water-stress as time passes and global warming increases. Overall, global warming is expected to impact how, when, and where rain falls. Changing patterns of precipitation will impact most countries around the globe.
While this model shows a good picture of what the future will look like, it shows something even more valuable. It shows that studies and modeling of this nature are deeply important to humanity. Peak Resources sees clearly that those who have the knowledge to forecast accurately, will be the ones who have the power to make changes. Those changes represent resource investment opportunities. Knowledge is the tool that will shape the future. Water demand is getting worse, and as time goes by the question is how do we deal with it today.