Applications to the state of Colorado to use deep underground aquifers for oil and gas development in Northern Colorado have surged, reflecting the new lengths that oil and gas companies have gone to obtain the scarce resource in the South Platte River Basin.
More than a dozen distinct parcels of land have applied to withdraw a total of 35,600 acre feet of non-tributary groundwater for potential use in oil and gas development since 2011, according to the state Division of Water Resources. The total nearly triples the 12,700-acre-foot capacity in Lake Loveland…
Non-tributary means groundwater that is not believed to significantly connect to tributary water that feeds surface water systems such as rivers. The ancient water typically is located hundreds of feet below the surface and derived from glacial melt or prehistoric seawater. Drilling wells to reach it can be costly.
Unlike rivers and streams where people own water rights in various places, non-tributary water can be diverted by property owners if they can show it would not affect stream and river flows. Applicants must demonstrate through scientific evidence and modeling that the aquifers are in fact non-tributary before they can receive state permits to use the water.
Noble Energy Inc. (NYSE: NBL), among the top oil and natural-gas producers in the region, alone has applied for nearly 4,700 acre feet on the Wells and Ball ranches in Weld County. The company last year said about 80 percent of its water came from wells and ponds, 18 percent came from cities and 2 percent is recycled. A Noble Energy representative did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The practice of tapping the prehistoric aquifers underscores the increasing need for water for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Northern Colorado. Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a drilled hole deep underground to extract oil and natural gas from dense shale formations.
The non-tributary use also reflects the challenges posed by competing interests for water in Northern Colorado, said Tom Cech, director of One World One Water Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. The use of non-tributary water for energy development relieves competition between energy development and agriculture, but tapping it now means it may not be available for future commercial and residential development.
“This is a public policy issue in the sense of, ‘Should water east of Greeley, this deep groundwater, be saved for future generations for some other purposes, or does it make sense to use it for energy development today?’ ” he said.
Property owners may choose to benefit today from the resource by selling the water because they may not have an economic incentive to keep the water intact for future generations, he added.