The Bakken oil play spurs a booming business -- in water

  • A water truck fills up at a depot near Watford City, North Dakota, while another heads back to a well site that will need up to 800 such loads for fracking.

    Nicholas Kusnetz
  • Workers install a pipeline that will bring Missouri River water to Watford City and surrounding communities. The Western Area Water Supply Authority estimates that water sales to the oil industry will cover 80 percent of the cost of the project.

    Western Area Water Supply Authority
 

The first thing you notice in North Dakota's oil patch are trucks. They dominate a landscape defined not long ago by cattle and wheat, and not long before that by bison and grass. Trucks groan through Watford City all night. They pile up traffic on highways designed for the occasional car or combine and whip dirt roads into dust storms that locals mistake for prairie fires. They're the first thing anyone mentions when you ask what has happened here in western North Dakota.

Thanks to the Bakken shale, the state has become the country's second-biggest oil-producer practically overnight. And while the world still runs on oil, with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, oil increasingly runs on water. Drillers inject 1 million to 3.5 million gallons of pressurized water into each well to shatter the rock and free the oil. More of the trucks you see are carrying water than anything else, some 400 to 800 truckloads per well.

In the low, early-morning light one fall day, the trucks are already lined up eight deep at a water depot outside Watford City. In the time it takes to smoke a cigarette, one trucker from Minnesota pumps 4,200 gallons from the ground into his chrome tanker. The job is good enough that, after two years of living away from home, he says his wife will soon be joining him here.

The water business is good for locals, too. Several dozen farmers and ranchers with access to water and $150,000 to spend have built water depots like this one -- trailer-sized aluminum pump-sheds with eight-inch pipes sticking out of the sides. These private water sellers pulled in $25 million to $30 million last year, according to Steve Mortenson, who heads the Independent Water Providers, a group that represents the industry in the state capital. Several local towns have built depots to sell excess municipal water, pulling in another $10 million or so last year, Mortenson estimates, a substantial sum given their average population of a few thousand people.

The sales are raising uncomfortable questions in a region where fewer than 15 inches of rain falls each year. In many places, the nearest water is 1,000 feet down in a large aquifer that flows freely to the surface in low-lying areas. But it recharges slowly, and the level at which it flows without pumping is dropping more than a foot per year from overuse. Meanwhile, most of the fracking water comes from a series of smaller, shallower aquifers, some of which are already stretched to meet drinking and irrigation needs. The Missouri River has begun to provide some relief, though federal agencies are already tussling over the possible negative effects of withdrawals. To make matters worse, the fracking water ends up contaminated and must be injected thousands of feet underground, removing it from the hydrologic cycle.

There's plenty to supply the oil companies for now, says Bob Shaver, director of the water appropriations division for the Water Commission, which monitors the state's aquifers and regulates all surface and groundwater withdrawals. The best estimate for oil-field use is about 3 billion gallons, based on last year's activity, with demand projected to double over the next decade. But it's only a matter of time before the state's water is fully appropriated, he says, and any new use will have noticeable effects. That day is nearing as the oil rush drives population growth in rural areas with little infrastructure, further straining water supplies. McKenzie County, in the heart of the boom, has grown 20 percent in two years.

Each new depot draws more opposition from neighbors and other interests, Shaver says, highlighting the resource's increasing value -- and scarcity. "To me, water is going to be the oil of the 21st century."

Nationwide, energy companies have been using more and more water for hydraulic fracturing over the past decade, spurring worries about impacts, from the arid West, where many rivers are fully appropriated, to relatively water-wealthy Pennsylvania. The EPA estimates that fracking uses between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water total each year. That's small compared to irrigation, which uses about 128 billion gallons every day. But much of the irrigation water runs into the ground or streams, and a lot of the rest evaporates to rain down elsewhere. In contrast, water used for oil and gas is usually disposed of or otherwise removed from the system. Even relatively small withdrawals can have local impacts.

"Will oil and gas use limit other uses?" asks Reagan Waskom, director of Colorado State University's Colorado Water Institute. In dry years such as this, he says, the answer is sometimes yes. So far, it's seldom happened. But Colorado officials project the industry's water consumption for fracking will grow 20 percent over the next three years, to more than 6 billion gallons per year.

Meanwhile, during last year's drought in Texas, drilling hardly slowed even as farmers and ranchers lost crops and cattle, and towns restricted water use. Regulators predict the annual fracking-water use there will triple over the next decade to 39 billion gallons. Environmental groups in the state have begun pushing  the  Legislature  to  enact conservation requirements for drillers and other industries.

While North Dakota has produced oil since the '50s, this boom's water use is unprecedented and cuts to an ongoing concern. Delegates writing the State Constitution in 1889 enshrined water as a public resource, held in trust by the state. But anyone with physical access to an aquifer or surface water can apply to the Water Commission for a withdrawal permit. (You don't need a permit for most domestic or livestock use.) Other than a few hundred dollars in fees, the water is free.

Between 1980 and 2007, when the current oil boom started, the state issued just 10 permits for water depots. It's awarded at least six times as many since then. The process isn't onerous so long as the new use won't "unduly" affect existing permits, which have priority. The commission has even urged farmers to temporarily convert irrigation permits to help drillers; nearly two dozen have done so. For the most part, oil companies here have not begun reusing wastewater, nor have regulators pushed them to. With the Missouri River bisecting the oil fields, the prevailing view is that nothing, least of all water, should slow drilling. That some individuals have reaped millions selling this water is simply a bonus.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking two full time community organizers to join our team. Positions can be based in Garfield County, Montrose...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Join our team as the Association's Executive Director. Working closely with the Board of Directors, take ANWS to the next level of professionalism by managing...
  • FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Development Director who will have the overall responsibilities of leading our fundraising programs and reports directly to our...
  • WATER RIGHTS/ADJUDICATION BUREAU CHIEF
    Job Overview: Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that Montana's land and water resources provide benefits for present and future...
  • CLIMATE CHANGE COORDINATOR
    The Greater Yellowstone Coalition is seeking a Climate Change Coordinator to play a lead role in shaping our programs to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...