- Delivering Truth Around the World
Custom Search


J. Dial

Smaller Font Larger Font RSS 2.0

March 16, 2013

The oil and gas industry assures us that fracking uses less than one percent of all water used. At one time that was true. Now it's time to look a little closer at that stat.


We be fracked by jdial

To indicate bargain status of something (or perhaps more commonly to prime the pump toward future purchases), people used to say, "It's free as water."  I haven't heard anyone use that comparative for a long time, at least not here in the bone-dry West.  We've got the bottled water to render that aphorism extinct. 

For the second lecture in our fracking series held by CU and a talk titled, "Water for Energy:  What Does It Mean for Colorado?", Reagan Waskom[1], a water engineer currently residing at Colorado State University, provided a wealth of insider information. 


Colorado gets its water primarily from its high-country snowpack.  Most of it--almost two-thirds of the annual flow--melts like ice cream in the late spring and early summer while the months of December, January, and February produce only three percent of the year's runoff.  Once liquefied, Colorado river water rushes to exit the state.  And most of that river water makes its escape.  Of the annual 15 million acre-feet of water that Colorado's mountains and streams are expected to produce on average--and that average varies wildly--10 million acre-feet or two-thirds of the expectation are appropriated elsewhere.  It goes to the other-basin states (Colorado, accompanied by New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming, are upper-basin states while Arizona, Nevada, and California are lower-basin states) and has since 1922.  The other-basin states don't look kindly to Colorado taking more than its allocation.  When Wyoming challenged Colorado's right to divert headwaters of the Colorado River to Colorado's front range, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that those waters would be governed by the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation--first come, first served.  

Water rights in the US are overseen by the states and reflect differences in abundance (  In the East where water is plentiful whoever owns the river bank controls the water; this is the riparian system.  As population and development increased the regulated riparian system developed; users now needed permits.  The West developed the appropriation system that put miners ahead of riparian uses and  severed water from land ownership.  Groundwater is confusingly governed by a blend of these policies, and all disagreements are explored in courts devoted to water altercations. 

When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, the assumption was that Colorado's runoff supplied about 16 million acre-feet of water each year, of which the other-basin states would be allocated 10 MAF.  It turns out that the figure they used was optimistic, based on times of abnormally high snowpack.  Theoretically Colorado gets to keep five MAF of the water its snowpack releases each year.  In fact it keeps what remains after all prior appropriations are met.  Per the 1922 agreement, over any 10-year period upper-basin states must provide to lower-basin states an aggregate flow of 75 million acre-feet.  Although there is a little wiggle room provided by a set of interim allocation guidelines that recognize low-reservoir conditions, amounts owed downstream don't much reflect actual fluctuations.   And although long-term precipitation measures over the past century are not deemed to have changed, the Colorado River region has shown a steady upward trend in temperature since the late 1970s.   A 2007 report by the National Research Council found that the most recent 11-year temperature average exceeds any previous values in over 100 years of keeping records, and that the Colorado River basin has warmed more than any other region in the country.   

An acre-foot of water is the amount of water that would cover an acre--about the size of a football field--one foot deep.  That is around 326,000 gallons of water; an Olympic-sized pool contains about twice that.  One acre-foot of water is thought sufficient for the home, irrigation, and industrial needs of four to five city people in one year. 

Of the water that Colorado gets to keep, how is it allocated?   In this state, cities use 10% of the water and agriculture 90%, all portioned out by seniority.   


The Rocky Mountains, once the bed of a vast cretaceous sea, are bounteously underlain with fossil fuels.  Thirty of the top 100 US gas fields as of 2009 touch Colorado. 

Oil shale was a boom in Colorado in the 80s.  It is not to be confused with shale oil.  Oil shale is rock with solid hydrocarbons trapped within it, while shale oil and gas are carbon-rich deposits that tend to have pockets of liquid oil and gas within them.  Conventional drilling taps pools in source rock, while unconventional targets gas in tight sands, tight rock, and shale.  Coal-bed methane is also unconventional drilling that extracts natural gas from the coal beds that absorbed it.  The Niobrara shale in eastern Colorado has been mapped for a long time, but it became accessible only with the advent of unconventional fracking. Access is occurring.   There are 50,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado now, twenty thousand of those in Weld County north of Denver.  

Frack fluid is 90% water and 9.5% sand proppant, which holds open the pressure-created cracks in the shale.  About 0.5% of the fluid typically consists of acids for cleaning perforations and initiating rock fissures, surfactant to minimize friction, salt to delay the breakdown of the gel polymer, ethylene glycol to prevent scale formation, borate salts to maintain fluid viscosity at temperature, sodium and potassium carbonates to maintain crosslinkers, glutaraldehyde to disinfect, citric acid to prevent corrosion, isopropanol to increase viscosity, and   gelling agents.  Proppant can be gel, foam, or slickwater based.   Slickwater is water made slick through chemistry.  

Just the Fracts

Water used in conventional drilling had a limited role, that of carrying cut rock to the surface and keeping the drill bits cool and lubed.  A conventional vertical well required about 150,000 gallons of water.  Unconventional drilling requires much more water, Waskom said, and it must also be fairly pure so that it doesn't dilute the chemicals.  The vertical portion of fracking requires at least as much as for conventional drilling and up to one million gallons of water, since it goes deeper than the wells of yesteryear.  Then the shaft turns horizontal.  

Each horizontal well segment, and there may be many, requires between two to five million gallons of water, depending on the lateral-portion length.  The water is no longer contained in the casing, of course; the casing is perforated and fluid is forced out into the shale.  It takes a lot of it, and it takes this amount every time a lateral length is fracked to keep the hydrocarbon flowing. 

The industry will tell you that, comparatively, fracking uses little water.  And the industry is right, or at least it was right eight years ago.  According to the 2005 USGS water-use report, oil and gas operations, subsumed under Mining operations, used about one percent of all water used in this country.   Of course, since that year the use of horizontal high-volume fracking has gone into high gear.   Between 2008 and 2011, oil and gas leases in six Colorado counties more than doubled.   

As previously USGS water-use reports came out every five years--1995, 2000, 2005--it is perplexing that eight years after the 2005 report the USGS does not appear to have updated its statistics.  Note that 2005 was only a few years after the technique for drilling horizontal wells had been successfully accomplished.  

On a potentially related note, last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was eliminating air-quality impacts from its environmental study of fracking due out in 2014. 

After the Fract

After the water has been driven into the ground for a fracking well, much of it returns.  Actually, more than what was introduced returns.  Does this mean that fracking actually produces water?  Not really. 

The water returns in two stages.  The first, called flowback or flow water, comes back almost immediately, in the first seven to ten days post-injection.  It largely consists of the fluid that was injected into the well in the first place.  Of what was injected, about 20% to 50% is thus recovered. (And much remains behind.) 

After the first wave of flowback emerges what is called produced water.  Produced water is not really returned; it was already underground.  The distinction between flowback and produced water is subtle because produced water, like flow water, is not nice water.  Associated with oil, gas, and methane-coal formations, it has high levels of dissolved solids and salts, as well as such hydrocarbons as methane, ethane, and propane.  It also contains radioactive materials such as radium isotopes.  Hydraulic fracturing can actually concentrate levels of radioactive materials.  

Free at last, this water can well up for months.  To clean it is not cost-effective (although, incredibly, federal legislation declared fracking wastewater as non-hazardous).  So drillers force their wastewater into injection wells or leave it in open-air pits. 

Colorado currently has more than 700 toxic-waste injection sites.  Injection wells are often relatively and sometimes entirely unregulated.  They may be lined or not.  Depths and placement are under local control.  Or not.  

Frack to the Future

At the beginning of 2012, a little more than a year ago, about 9,000 square miles of public land--10% of Colorado--had been leased to oil and gas interests.  People also lease land privately, however, and, since most land in the Wattenberg field north of Denver and on the state's eastern plains is private, such leases are potentially greater in scope than leases of public land.  Thus a conservative estimate is that over 20% of Colorado is held by oil-and-gas interests.  Mineral rights trump those of landowners, public or private[2].  Approximately 70% of Colorado lies above oil-bearing shale formations and new leasing has been in the neighborhood of 1,000 square miles annually.  

On February 14 of this year the Bureau of Land Management sold off about 69,000 acres of Colorado public land.  About one-quarter of this land went for two dollars an acre, a rate established in 1922 and never changed.  The leases are good for 10 years.  At a public meeting in Castle Rock, Colorado, a couple of years ago, a hydrologist for the industry said they expect 60,000 new wells--more than doubling the current number--in Colorado over the next 20 years.   Oil companies in North Dakota plan, during the next 15 years, an additional 35,000 wells and an increase of production to two million barrels per day, about three times what it is now, in that state alone.  

Waskom drew a distinction between withdrawal and consumption.   Withdrawn water is taken out of a supply but much of that returns, often through the drain.   Consumed water does not return.   In Colorado alone between two and eight million gallons of fresh water are poured annually into each fracking well.   That is enough fresh water to fill over half a million Olympic-sized swimming pools.   Virtually all of that water will be consumed.   And this is just the beginning.  

Although three-quarters of the earth is covered with water, less than one percent of all water of it is available for human, plant, and animal consumption.   Over the last century water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of human-population increase.   Colorado has just so much fresh water available to it, and all of it is allocated.   That which is taken for fracking must come from other intended uses.   Does Colorado have enough water to have it consumed in single-use fracking?  

Does anyone?  


This was the second of 10 planned lectures held by the University of Colorado and on various aspects of fracking.  Last week's lecture was by Susan Tierney and was titled, "Unconventional Natural Gas:  Trends, Opportunities, and Challenges with America's New Energy Resource."  


[1]  Reagan Waskom (Water for Energy:  How much does it take?  How much will we need?) is Director of the Colorado Water Institute and of the Colorado State University Water Center.  At CSU he teaches in the Department of Soil & Crop Sciences and is jointly appointed to the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.  He is also Regional Director of the USDA-CSREES Integrated Water Program.  His projects include optimizing irrigation water in limited environments, determining aquiver vulnerability to nitrous-oxide contamination (NO3), and evaluating the quality of runoff water. 

[2] Strictly speaking, oil and gas are not minerals.  But since before 1900 they have been deemed to be so (  



Submitters Bio:


Dr. Dial is a psychologist and medical illustrator who for well over a decade has worked as a freelance medical writer and editor. She is an editor for OpEdNews and has made contributions to encyclopedias of medicine (Magill's Medical Guide, 6th edition), genetics (Genetics and Inherited Disorders, revised edition, Salem Press), and forensic sculpture and handwriting analysis (Salem Encyclopedia of Forensic Science). She has published articles on such subjects as the interaction of cocaine and alcohol, how cancer interacts with its host, and creativity, and written books (most recently "I'll Ride Away--One way to leave those pesky death wishes in the dust"). Her wide-ranging interests unfortunately cannot exclude alarmed observations of current political and environmental calamities. Her medical writing and illustrating website is, and the website at which she expresses her prescriptive grammatical preferences is