Fracking in dry areas adds to water woes

Fracking for oil and gas is a thirsty business.

Hydraulic fracturing uses large amounts of pressurized water — mixed with chemicals and sand — to crack subterranean rocks and release oil or natural gas. Up to 10 million gallons of water can go into a single well.

And according to a new study, it’s happening in many places where water supplies are already stretched perilously thin.

The study, released Wednesday by the nonprofit group Ceres, examined 25,450 fracked wells across the United States and found that 47 percent lie in areas that face high or extremely high “water stress.” In those areas, at least 80 percent of the available fresh water is already being used in homes, farms or businesses.

The numbers have big implications.

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Fracking has triggered an oil and gas drilling boom across the United States, from Pennsylvania to California. But some places that have seen the most fracking, such as west Texas and Colorado, have suffered recent droughts. Even in good years, they aren’t exactly drenched in rainfall.

The spread of fracking in these areas could lead to competition among drillers, farmers and homeowners, said Monika Freyman, manager of the water program at Ceres.

“It’s already starting to happen,” said Freyman, who co-wrote the report. “The companies will be able to get their water, because they can afford to pay the most. But it’s going to increase the competition and conflicts for water, especially in regions that are experiencing drought.”

Ceres works with investors and businesses to encourage sustainability, with a particular focus on climate change and water scarcity. Freyman and her colleagues used records from FracFocus, a website where oil and gas companies post information on the wells they have fracked. They compared the location of the wells to water supply data from the World Resources Institute.

California, which just ended a rainy season remarkably free of rain, does not feature prominently in the report.

So far, fracking has not become as widespread here as it has in North Dakota or Texas. And California’s unique un derground geology has limited the amount of water needed for fracking. Shale rocks here contain large amounts of briney water along with the oil, so pressurizing the well doesn’t take as much water pumped from the surface.

Ceres wants the companies that engage in fracking to do a better job planning for water use and recycling, and to have having discussions about both with the public.

“We really want to see better water management planning, from industry and regulators and water managers,” Freyman said.