Could water from oil and gas help Colorado’s water shortages? It’s complicated

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Photo: Produced waterWhen an energy company drills for oil and gas, a lot of water comes to the surface.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission reports that the industry generated more than 50,000 acre feet of water last year. That's enough to supply about 125,000 families for a year; one acre foot provides enough water for three families of four, on average.

According to a recent state report, Colorado faces a gap of hundreds of thousands of acre feet by 2050. The estimate includes the state demographer's projections of Colorado's future population growth.

With so much water coming out of the ground from drilling, some academics and entrepreneurs suggest that this so-called "produced water" could mitigate Colorado's water shortage.

Consultant and ecologist Gary Beers is one of those entrepreneurs -- he can be described as a "water matchmaker" who is attempting to bring produced water to those who may find uses for it. Beers worked for the state’s water quality division for about a decade and he thinks there are better uses for produced water than evaporating it or injecting it deep into the earth. But, he says ,first it’s important to understand how produced water from very deep formations differs from groundwater closer to the surface.

"Generally the deeper you go, the more salts are in the water because that gets back to the ancient times when the whole area was covered with salt water,” Beers says.

Traditionally, people have used water that exists within a thousand feet of the surface and most water wells don’t go much deeper than a few hundred feet. So, there hasn’t been much interest in water that’s deeper than that.

But, Beers says that’s changing because of the amount of water generated by drilling.

“There are some situations where for every barrel of oil they bring up, up to 10 to 20 or 30 barrels of water,” he says.

The quantity and quality of water that comes to the surface with oil and gas drilling varies greatly depending on the geology of the area and the depth of of the well.

Conventionally, oil and gas companies have had to work hard and spend a lot of money to get rid of this wastewater. They truck it to huge evaporation ponds or injection wells often in Utah and Nevada, where it is never used again.

One reason for not reusing the water is that it’s usually not clean. For the first several weeks or months, the water that returns from drilling -- called "flowback" -- is filled with chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. Eventually, that water, now called "produced water," is mostly salt water that dates back millions of years. Some companies are starting to use produced water to drill new wells.

Concord Produced Water Services is one company helping operators recycle water. The company’s intricate system of pumps, filters and skimmers strips out hydrocarbons, chemicals, metals and even bacteria. Some Weld County operators are treating their water in order to use it to drill new wells nearby.

But, on the West Slope, Concord Produced Water Services plans to implement a more radical idea. The company is partnering with Clifton Sanitation District to treat produced water and use it to replenish the Colorado River. The water would not only go through Concord’s filtration system to get rid of chemicals, metals and salt, it would also be put through the community of Clifton’s wastewater treatment plant. Mesa County Commissioners will vote on the idea Tuesday.

Some residents worry that if the proposal passes, contaminants could end up in the river. Denver water lawyer Alan Curtis says it’s not clear who would be responsible for any potential damage.

“If it’s not properly treated, then who becomes responsible?" Curtis asks. "Is it the overlying landowner who, under Colorado law, owns that water? Is it the energy company that sold it? Or, is it the company that treated it? Or, the district that discharged it into the river?”

Operators have released produced water into rivers before. Several years ago, in Huerfano County in southern Colorado, Petroglyph Energy Company discharged produced water into the Cucharas River. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) allowed the discharge.

The salty fluid damaged the area and almost put a nearby dairy farmer, Brett Corsentino, out of business. Corsentino used the water to grow corn and feed his cows. His crops died and his cows got tuberculosis. The water also damaged fisheries down river.

The state has since improved regulations to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

Despite the obstacles, Beers is trying to get counties to deice roads and suppress dust with produced water. He says it could replace road salt; many commercial products are "50 times more concentrated" than produced water from oil and gas.

Because reusing produced water is a relatively new idea, there is a lack of publicly available data and peer-reviewed studies about treatment options and environmental risks and impacts. In addition, the public is skeptical about using water from oil and gas production. Finally, there is a complex interplay of local, state and federal regulating entities, which can cause uncertainty and permitting delays.

Shrinking water supplies might eventually lead Coloradans to see produced water as a new resource. But, not until a lot of questions are answered.