As oil and gas development in Western states continues to increase, from Green River, Utah to North Dakota’s Bakken, so do public fears of water contamination from spills and hydraulic fracturing. Although fracking (pumping water and chemicals underground to release oil or gas trapped within rock) has been used for decades, there’s still no conclusive evidence about how harmful it may be to groundwater.
Communities that draw most of their drinking water from wells are particularly concerned about what new oil and gas development might mean for groundwater supplies (see our story “Locals resist a Bakkenization of the Beartooths”). A few states, like Colorado and Wyoming, require energy companies in some areas to do a certain amount of baseline water testing before drilling, but those laws are still anomalies – mostly, such testing is up to landowners.
Now, the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Water and Research Center has come up with a guide to help landowners collect baseline data on well water before drilling begins. Such information can help owners negotiate with energy companies and make it easier to document any later problems with water quality or quantity. The guide focuses on Colorado, but the information is helpful to landowners in any state.
First off, the guide says: Know your water. Be aware of what’s normal for your particular water source because most groundwater quality changes naturally with wet and dry seasons. Not every little change is bad, so test regularly over time to get an accurate baseline. Also, common contaminants like fertilizers, manure, septic systems and even storm-water runoff are generally more likely to contaminate your well than is nearby extraction, the guide says. So know your well’s surroundings.
It’s also important to keep in mind that it may take a while for any contamination to make its way into a well. Pollutants from oil and gas drilling might not be detectable in your well until years later. So think long-term: If you’re within half a mile of a planned drilling site, start testing at least six months before drilling begins, and continue sampling twice each year.
In some states, you can learn more about your water wells in online databases, such as the Colorado Division of Water Resources Well Permit Search database that helps Coloradans find out what their well casing is made of, how deep it goes and in some cases, which aquifer it draws from.
Coloradans may be able to get lab tests for free from natural gas operators, since the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission began requiring groundwater monitoring in May 2013. If a company isn’t testing for you, the process can be expensive. It takes anywhere from $500 to $700 to get a full test for 26 contaminants, or up to $210 for the nine most likely to show up after oil or gas drilling (including methane, sulfate, chloride, potassium, sodium and barium). A certified laboratory can analyze your water samples and provide nitty-gritty tips for gathering those samples. (The new downloadable guide has a list of labs you can try.)
The guide recommends asking a lab technician for help interpreting your first test results, or see the Groundwater Quality Interpretation Guide online. If you have an unlimited budget, you could also hire a professional water consultant from this list on the National Groundwater Association website to do the testing and interpretation. For Coloradans, after you’re satisfied with your test results, send the data to the state’s Oil and Gas Commission, so they can add it to a statewide map of water quality that’s in the works.
In terms of what we do know about how drilling affects groundwater, recent studies have shown correlation between proximity to fracking operations and heart defects in infants; and 2013 EPA studies found an association between contaminants in local groundwater and fracking in Pavillion, Wyo. Even with a smattering of emerging research and a definitive trend toward stronger regulation, no state is really staying ahead of fast-paced energy development.
So as communities around the country seek to keep their water supplies safe and pure, guides like this one will only become more important. And it’s not just for concerned well water users, but for anyone looking to cut through the media hype and get more information about what’s really at stake. As the new guide puts it: “It is CWERC’s hope that these combined efforts will help shift the public debate over oil and gas extraction from a tangle of misinformation and uncertainty to a productive, transparent, and evidence-based conversation.”
Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She tweets @taywiles.