Use well water in oil & gas territory? There’s a guide for that


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.

Fracking in Los Angeles. Photograph by Flickr user Erick Gustafson.

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 cover of the new guide for individuals or communities who want to create their own baseline water testing program or strategy.

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.

Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
May 06, 2014 08:33 PM
It is absurd that property owners are on their own to establish preemptive water quality baselines, and to prepare themselves to initiate water contamination lawsuits against deep pocket gas companies and their armies of lawyers - suits filed only after it's too late and the water is unusable. The states and EPA have abandoned its citizens.

Does anyone really believe that any but the most resourceful and doggedly persistent property owners stand a chance in this rigged game?

The gas companies ordinarily hide behind a series of roadblocks; including claiming that contamination is naturally occurring (if not coinciding remarkably with the timing of fracking), is below arbitrary minimum thresholds, or, failing the above, is not their fault, but must be the fault of some other driller nearby. Leaving the property owner SOL, unable to prove which operation is the one that caused the contamination. Every step of the way is dragged out by legal motions and delays, in hopes that the hapless humans on the receiving end of the contamination give up and go away, or run out of money, or die. If none of that works; they bankrupt the subsidiary and slink away.

Ordinarily, the drillers settle with property owners when it looks like the case might win; these settlements come invariably with a gag order secrecy clause. So the desperate property owners, who are now trapped with undrinkable water, strange degenerative diseases, an unsellable house, and deteriorating finances and health, are forced to take the money and keep their mouths shut.

Perhaps some enterprising journalist will someday count the number of suits that are filed and settled, and take a look at the facts underlying them, and perhaps give us a glimpse into the true scope of the contamination issue.
Malcolm McMichael
Malcolm McMichael
May 06, 2014 08:36 PM
PS. It looks several states are now confirming that contamination has occurred...[…]/