Farmers may get to use drilling water
GLENWOOD SPRINGS Two new bills making their way through the U.S. Congress could set the stage for treating water produced by oil and gas drilling that could be used by farmers and ranchers for irrigation.The More Water and More Energy Act, House bill 902, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, who is Eagle Countys congressman, would fund research and development pilot programs in several western states to find ways to use the water for agriculture. If it passes, it would require the U.S. Department of Interior to carry out the study and provide $5 million in funding.A companion bill, More Water, More Energy, Less Waste Act of 2007, Senate bill 1116, is sponsored by Democratic U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar.Every day, 2 million gallons of produced water are wasted in this nation, unfit for use, Salazar said. Recovering that water could help lift a huge burden off the backs of farmers, ranchers, communities and recreation users. So-called produced water comes up with natural gas from deep underground and contains hydrocarbons crude petroleum and dissolved solids including salts that in most instances could not be used for irrigation or in homes.Across the state, water produced by oil and gas drilling is either recycled or injected into deep wells.
In 2003, EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), one of the top natural gas producers in the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado, built a water treatment plant on Hunter Mesa south of Rifle. Originally, it processed water produced not only from its typical local wells, but also from 24 experimental coal bed methane wells, which have since been capped. The plant continues to treat water from its other wells.Coal bed methane development poses its own problems with water disposal because coal seams must be dewatered in order to release the gas.The Hunter Mesa plant, as well as two plants opened in 2004 in the Parachute area, removes hydrocarbons and dissolved solids, especially salts, and is then reused for drilling operations. The treated water meets state water quality standards for discharge into the Colorado River, although no water was disposed of in that way, said EnCana spokeswoman Wendy Wiedenbeck.EnCana recycles 90 percent of its produced water, she said. In 2006, its drilling activity produced 7.7 million barrels of water.As more wells are drilled each year, gas developers are reaching their capacity to use what water they produce. Currently our water handling facilities are at maximum capacity, Wiedenbeck said.Williams, also a top gas producer in the Piceance, does not have water treatment plants and recycles all of its produced water, said Williams spokeswoman Susan Alvillar. In about 10 years we will have to have a disposal plan, she said.
Energy trade groups in Colorado have come out in support of the Salazar and Udall bills. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association endorsed the bills, said Denver attorney Ken Wonstolen, who represents the organization.There is interest in the arid West to make a beneficial use of produced water, he said. The bill would identify the legal and institutional barriers to using it. As a waste product, produced water does not come under state water law. Under the law water rights are established by the doctrine of prior appropriation commonly known as first in time, first in right.But Alan Martellaro, Division 5 engineer of the Division of Water Resources, which administers state water law, said once that water is turned to a beneficial use, such as irrigating a farmers crop, it would be subject to state water law.Martellaro said buying treated produced water could prove too costly for farmers and ranchers.Can a farmer afford to pay for this water that could cost hundreds of dollars per acre foot, when he (now) pays $5 an acre foot or less? Martellaro asked.Municipalities could afford to make use of such water to augment water diverted from other sources, he added.In the long run, water produced from oil and gas drilling wont make much of a dent in the states need to meet its compact obligations to downstream states along the Colorado River, he said. Were talking about thousands of acre feet (of produced water) as opposed to a need for tens of millions of acre feet to meet the states downstream obligations. Its a small amount in the grand scheme of things.
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