The meandering Box Elder Creek has become a battlefield as farmers and ranchers are facing off against a plan to drill wells along its banks to provide water for fracking and other oil-field operations. While the creeks wends its way north from Elbert County to the South Platte River in Weld County — Arapahoe County is ground zero for the fight.
Boxelder Properties LLC is proposing sinking four wells to draw 500-acre feet of water annually for the fracking and other oil-drilling operations. That is enough water to supply 200 average Denver homes for a year.
Ranchers and farmers along the Box Elder say the plan will dry out wells and pools used by cattle, as well as kill vegetation along the creek’s banks east of Aurora.
“These boys from Texas think they can just ride in. Well, the people on Box Elder are going to meet ‘em at the hill,” said Jerry Francis, who grazes about 30 head of cattle on the creek.
The dispute underscores the problem of trying to balance oil and gas development in Colorado with other economic activities.
“We want oil and gas development, but we have to do it so we don’t jeopardize our agricultural community,” Arapahoe County Commissioner Rod Bockenfeld said.
The county commissioners have sent a letter opposing the project to the Colorado Division of Water Resources, which must decide on the proposal.
The proposal has become so controversial that Houston-based Conoco-Phillips, the main company drilling in the area, announced that it wouldn’t use water from the wells. Houston-based Select Energy Services, the Conoco contractor that initiated the plan, has also abandoned the idea, according to company spokeswoman Brooke Jones.
Still, the permit application to drill the wells is pending with the water division, also called the Office of the State Engineer.
“The project isn’t dependent on Conoco; there are other oil service companies,” said Walraven Ketellapper, head of Boulder-based Stillwater Resources and Investment.
Stillwater, a water broker and agent, is handling the permit for Boxelder Creek Properties.
The state engineer has received 16 letters — from farmers, public officials, water districts — objecting to the plan and raising concerns about its impact on water supplies.
“We are going to do the engineering analysis, the groundwater modeling to show the wells can withdraw water without adverse impacts,” Ketellapper said. “That is our burden of proof.”
Just 15 miles east of Denver, suburban sprawl gives way to silos, barns and broad fields seemingly running all the way to the snow-capped Rockies. It is through this landscape that Box Elder Creek snakes its way to the South Platte River, 2 feet deep in some places, sometimes as wide as 12 feet, while in other spots it is just a dry, sandy bottom most of the year.
“We are a dry county,” said Bockenfeld, the Arapahoe County commissioner. “Many farms dry farm; there just isn’t a lot of water.”
Only in the early spring with the first snowmelt does the creek run full, but all year long a subterranean stream feeds ponds and pools, residents say.
“This pool is here all summer long,” Francis said as he stood in a field next to the creek. “The water and this buffalo grass gets cattle fat as a fritter.”
A retired John Deere worker who raises cattle to keep busy, the 67-year-old Francis said what he is most concerned about is the future.
“They take away the water, what’s left for my kids and grandkids?” he said.
A neighboring farmer, Bill Coyle, 60, has more immediate concerns. Coyle estimates he spent about $300,000 in an eight-year battle with the state engineer to get a water right for four irrigation wells on his 1,000-acre farm. Standing at one of his center-pivot wells, Coyle can see the spot where one of the proposed wells would be. It is beyond the state-required 600-foot setback — but still within sight.
The application for the four water wells says that they are drawing water from the creek and won’t impact local wells. Coyle doesn’t believe it.
“They are proposing pumping at 1,000 gallons a minute,” Coyle said. “My well is 42 feet deep. It will have an impact on the well, and it will be immediate.”
The decision to issue a temporary permit to drill and pump the four wells to produce 500-acre feet a year or 163 million gallons rests with the state engineer. The award of a long-term water right would be determined in Colorado Water Court — a process that can take as much as five years. The process is governed by Colorado water law — a byzantine set of rules organizing the right to draw water based on a priority system.
The key to being allowed to pump the water is a so-called augmentation plan to replace it so that the older or “senior” water rights are not impaired. This is an expensive process.
Select Energy offered four landowners — none of them local residents — $10,000 to drill a water well on their land and 1 cent for every barrel of water — about 42 gallons — pumped, according to one of the contracts.
They also purchased shares in the Weldon Valley Ditch to replace the pumped water. The application estimates that 10.4 shares — worth about $950,000 — would be needed to replace the 500 acre-feet drawn from the water wells.
Water, however, is vital to the oil and gas industry, with demand growing 35 percent to 18,700 acre-feet from 2010 to 2015, according to state estimates. The water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is pumped into wells under pressure to “hydrofracture” or frack shale rock and release oil and gas. About 4 million gallons is pumped into a single horizontal well.
“Water has always responded to the market in Colorado,” said Ken Carlson, director of the Center for Energy and Water Sustainability at Colorado State University. “First it was urban areas buying the water rights of farms. Now it is oil and gas.”
Select Energy is now getting its water from Denver-based Pure Cycle Corp., which has deep wells on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range, in Arapahoe County. Pure Cycle is opposing the plan because it also has a water right on the Box Elder that would be hurt, said Mark Harding, Pure Cycle’s president. The problem is that the plan calls for pumping along the Box Elder but returning the water about 50 miles to the north near Wiggins.
“Our water right requires us to replace the water in the Box Elder. That’s what they should do,” Harding said.
The state engineer will rule in the next few months on the temporary permit, which could enable pumping this year and last for as long as five years.
“This application is unusual in that the Box Elder isn’t a continuously flowing stream where the groundwater is continuously replenished,” Deputy State Engineer Kevin Rein said.
“We take the concerns seriously, and we’ve asked the applicant to respond to them,” Rein said. “We’ll have to see what they say.”