Fracking may not deserve the blame for high water prices

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photo: water truckDrilling for oil and gas sucks up billions of gallons of water every year. On average operators use between two to five million gallons of water to frack a single well in Weld County, Colo.

Many Colorado cities are eager to sell excess water to operators, who are willing to pay top dollar.

In Greeley, Colo., water trucks rumble down the streets every morning. The city is in the heart of Colorado’s oil and gas fields an hour north of Denver.

Truckers pull up alongside one of the fifteen fire hydrants designated for their use. They heave out a yellow or black hose and hook up a connection. After about fifteen minutes haulers depart for the drilling pads with a full tank.

The sight makes Carl Erickson cringe. He's the chair of Weld Air and Water, an environmental watchdog group.

“The priority needs to be the residents,” Erickson says. “The people who actually live here. The plants that grow here. Our wildlife because our water resources are the core of our ability to exist.”

Erickson has lived in Greeley his whole life because he loves the wide open spaces and rural feel of Weld County. But he’s worried family farmers are being priced out of the market because oil and gas companies can afford to pay so much more for water.

At least that’s what it looks like to him because he has watched farmers leave as the oil and gas industry has exploded.

The USDA reports that in the five years starting in 2007, 400 farms closed up shop in Weld County. During that same time period the industry drilled more than 6,000 wells in the area.

But Donna Brosemer, spokesperson for Greeley’s water department, says farmers and industry don’t compete for the same water. She says Greeley, like other cities, prioritizes residents and farmers. The city only sells excess water to oil and gas operators when municipal and agricultural needs have been met.

If the city has leftover water it charges the oil and gas industry a much higher price for water. For example, in 2013 farmers paid Greeley $35 for an acre foot of water, the industry paid the city $3,500 dollars for the same amount -- about 100 times more.

Greeley welcomes the industry’s business and deep pockets because oil and gas dollars help defray costs, and Brosemer says that keeps rates down for everyone else.

She says the city is taking advantage of the situation while it lasts. “It’s a small window because the technologies that are allowing operators to reuse their water didn’t exist a few years ago,” she says. “So, we know that while they were steady customers for a few years they won’t necessarily be back.”

Reagan Waskom, the Director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, says it’s not that industry is necessarily driving up the cost of water for farming; it’s that water has become so valuable that farmers may find it’s more profitable to sell their water than to grow crops.

Though the Colorado Division of Water Resources doesn't have hard data showing how many farmers are selling their water, it says the number is small, likely around one to two percent.

Richard Seaworth, a farmer in Wellington, Colo. who grows a variety of crops, says population growth is much more of a threat to growers than oil and gas development. “We used to have a lot of water available to us,” he says. “We’ve had millions of people move into the Front Range here and they’re consuming the water that we used to consume.”

In fact, Weld County’s population increased forty percent from 2000 to 2010.

Seaworth stresses that water prices were rising long before the recent oil and gas boom. He’s watched cities buy farmers out for the last forty years, and that’s why, he says, most of the neighboring farms are gone.

“It’s pretty tempting to just sell it to a municipality and just leave,” he says.” Someday he expects his son, who currently helps him run his farm, to leave as well.

The state is crafting a new plan to divvy up Colorado’s water in the face of impending shortages -- looking for a balance between the many competing interests. It’s expected out later this year.