The Bakken oil play spurs a booming business in water

The Bakken oil play spurs a booming business in water by Nicholas Kusnetz, August 6, 2012, High Country News
And while the world still runs on oil, with the rise of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, oil increasingly runs on water. Drillers inject 1 million to 3.5 million gallons of pressurized water into each well to shatter the rock and free the oil. More of the trucks you see are carrying water than anything else, some 400 to 800 truckloads per well. … Several dozen farmers and ranchers with access to water and $150,000 to spend have built water depots like this one — trailer-sized aluminum pump-sheds with eight-inch pipes sticking out of the sides. These private water sellers pulled in $25 million to $30 million last year, according to Steve Mortenson, who heads the Independent Water Providers, a group that represents the industry in the state capital. Several local towns have built depots to sell excess municipal water, pulling in another $10 million or so last year, Mortenson estimates, a substantial sum given their average population of a few thousand people. The sales are raising uncomfortable questions in a region where fewer than 15 inches of rain falls each year. In many places, the nearest water is 1,000 feet down in a large aquifer that flows freely to the surface in low-lying areas. But it recharges slowly, and the level at which it flows without pumping is dropping more than a foot per year from overuse. Meanwhile, most of the fracking water comes from a series of smaller, shallower aquifers, some of which are already stretched to meet drinking and irrigation needs. The Missouri River has begun to provide some relief, though federal agencies are already tussling over the possible negative effects of withdrawals. To make matters worse, the fracking water ends up contaminated and must be injected thousands of feet underground, removing it from the hydrologic cycle.

Water is already hard to find. When the Tjeldes built their home, they drilled fruitlessly and eventually resorted to a “water witch,” who divined a narrow seam of water in the ground. The well only pumps about four gallons per minute, and it’s too salty for the garden. So LaShell collects rainwater in two 500-gallon barrels, one of which is nearly empty. Some neighbors must haul water from town. “If these aquifers are dried up through industrial use, what’s left for us?” Lee says. “This is our life out here.”

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