2015 Colorado legislation: The South Platte Roundtable is supporting HB15-1178 (Emergency Well Pumping Damaging High Groundwater)

March 24, 2015
Map of the South Platte River alluvial aquifer subregions -- Colorado Water Conservation Board via the Colorado Water Institute

Map of the South Platte River alluvial aquifer subregions — Colorado Water Conservation Board via the Colorado Water Institute

From The Fence Post (Kayla Young):

Members of the South Platte Basin Roundtable have unanimously approved a recommendation to temporarily dewater the Gilcrest and LaSalle area, which gives a needed boost to House Bill 1178 to bring down the rising water table that has been flooding area homes and farmland.

The House agriculture committee had previously requested the roundtable’s input in order to move forward on the legislation.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, and Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, introduced the bill. Saine said the roundtable’s support establishes the framework necessary to accept dewatering recommendations and establish the estimated $450,000 to $500,000 in funding to dewater the zone for two years.

“The idea behind the bill is really to fix the problem that’s been generated by a change in water management,” Saine said, referring to wells that were shut off by the state in 2006. “This is a short-term solution that is desperately needed and is not being offered by any other venue.”

A potential well pumping site has been identified on a property managed by Harry Strohauer near Weld County Road 42, said Robert Longenbaugh, a water consultant engineer and member of the Groundwater Coalition.

The water pumped from this site will not be permitted for consumptive use. It will instead be directed to a drainage ditch that runs northeastward and eventually flows into the river.

To bring down the water table, Longenbaugh said the pump would run constantly throughout the year, generating an estimated electric bill of $25,000 a year. While temporary funding has been established to dewater through the end of June, Saine said she hopes most funding will come from the state.

Saine hopes to begin dewatering by April 1, when groundwater levels traditionally begin to rise again due to spring runoff and activity in irrigation ditches.

The Colorado Legislature will likely not have approved a final version of HB1178 by that time, so Saine and other dewatering advocates plan to begin pumping using independently procured funding until the state steps in.

“Groups have come forward with funding but a majority should come from the state general fund because the state caused this problem due to a change in water management,” Saine said.

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said the vote was the first time in his six years on the roundtable that a unanimous decision was reached on a proposal.

“This is the quickest, fastest way to address issues affecting Gilcrest,” he said.

While the water table has been rising and causing damage for several years now, Conway said recent cases of flooded basements and compromised farmland have made addressing the situation unavoidable.

“You cannot deny it anymore. When someone has a basement flooded, that’s real. That’s not hypothetical,” he said.

Longenbaugh said meetings will take place next week with Colorado State University and the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District to further define which wells to pump and how to monitor them. The data taken from wells pumped this year could contribute to the creation of a long-term solution.

While dewatering will provide temporary relief, Saine emphasized that it is still necessary to identify the underlying causing of the high water table in order to develop a true solution.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.


2015 Colorado legislation: Two groundwater bills, no solutions to high groundwater near Gilcrest yet

March 17, 2015
South Platte River alluvial aquifer

South Platte River alluvial aquifer

From the Sterling Journal-Advocate (Marianne Goodland):

Among the bills awaiting action (and funding) in the House are House Bill 15-1013 and HB 1178. The latter would take $500,000 over two years from general funds and put it into an “emergency dewatering grant account.” If the bill makes it to the governor’s desk and is signed, then the money, under the control of the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB), could be used to start emergency pumping of wells permitted for dewatering in the Gilcrest and LaSalle areas. Those areas are experiencing high groundwater that has damaged crops, flooded basements and streets.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, one of the bill’s sponsors, told this reporter she sought the legislation as a short-term fix to the groundwater problems for residents in her district. It is “the only short-term solution available for Gilcrest and surrounding areas,” she said this week.

Saine pointed out that her bill has the support of the South Platte Basin Roundtable.

But her bill is at odds with another that is intended to address the high groundwater problem in her district and in Sterling.

HB 1013 comes from the annual interim Water Resource Review Committee, of which Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is a member. Sonnenberg is the Senate sponsor of HB 1013, along with Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton. In the House, HB 1013 is sponsored by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose. It passed the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee in late January.

Both bills arise from the 2013 CWCB report that recommended local solutions for high groundwater problems in Gilcrest/LaSalle and north from Sterling to Julesburg, rather than a one-size-fits-all plan.

HB 1013, also awaiting action from the House Appropriations Committee, would require the CWCB to conduct a study that would test alternative methods for lowering the water table along the South Platte near the Gilcrest/LaSalle and Sterling areas. The bill sets up application and approval criteria for the pilot projects, which would last four years. The bill also deals with related issues, such as augmentation plans and recharge structures (ponds or ditches).

HB 1013 sets up a lengthy process for the pilot projects, starting with a 45 days’ notice for proposed criteria and public comment. Another 75 days is allotted for comments on the pilot project applications. Once the CWCB approves the applications, another 35 days is available for appeals.

Should it become law, the bill wouldn’t go into effect until around Aug. 5. That contrasts with the timelines for HB 1178, which addresses the problem only in Gilcrest. Because HB 1178 has what’s known as a safety clause, if signed, it would go into effect immediately.

“Had 1013 addressed the immediate problem of flooding basements and potential health and safety issues, I would not have run 1178,” Saine said this week. Testimony given during the HB 1178’s March 2 hearing indicated that pumping could start as soon as April 15.

But the emergency dewatering plan wasn’t supported by the water resources review committee. During their Sept. 30, 2014, meeting, then-Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, commented that if action was not taken soon, those affected by the high groundwater problems would take legal action. “We owe it to the people of Colorado” to solve this problem with a smart approach, Brophy said. Dewatering wells take out the water “and dump it in the river, which I think is a waste of water. How can that be okay if it’s not okay to pull it out for beneficial use?”

Coram, during the January hearing on HB 1013, said dewatering was not the solution. HB 1013 is not the only solution, he said, “but it’s a start.”

HB 1013 has another important distinction: its cost. While HB 1178 seeks $500,000 in general funds, which come from income and sales tax, HB 1013 seeks less than $100,000 over two years for evaluation of the pilot projects. Sonnenberg told this reporter this week he is attempting to get those dollars from the CWCB construction fund rather than tapping into the general fund.

HB 1013 does not address the costs for implementing the plan that would come from the pilot projects.

More 2015 Colorado legislation coverage here.


USGS: Groundwater Atlas

March 9, 2015


What Is Oil And Gas Wastewater And What Do We Do With It? — KUNC

March 2, 2015

From KUNC (Stephanie Paige Ogburn):

When a typical oil well starts producing, there are three main products pumped out: gas, oil, and water. The amount of water is significant. In Colorado, for every barrel of oil produced in 2013, there were 6 barrels of wastewater pumped from the ground.

How that water — sometimes referred to as produced water — is treated and disposed of has become a growing issue as oil and gas production has increased in Colorado and across the United States.

Mark Engle, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, is working to pin down just how much of the wastewater is being produced nationwide.

“Since the big explosion in shale gas and tight oil production in the last four or five years, [there is almost no data on] how much the amount of produced water has changed in the U.S,” Engle said.

Quantities of wastewater, which can be 10 times saltier than seawater and is often laced with hydrocarbons, have grown because of the shale boom, which requires continual drilling of new wells to be profitable.

“And so just to have stable production, you have to keep putting more and more and more wells in, and they are all producing water,” said Engle.

Most of these wells, drilled in shale formations like the Niobrara in Northern Colorado, or the Bakken in North Dakota, are horizontal wells that are hydraulically fractured. To do this, millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and proppants, like sand, are pumped into the ground at high pressure, opening up tiny cracks in the shale.

The goal of this process is to free up trapped oil and gas. But trapped water flows back as well. Some of that water is what was used in the fracking process, but a lot of it is also ancient water from deep within the Earth.

That wastewater picks up a lot of chemicals because of where it comes from, said Ken Carlson, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who studies energy and water issues.

While many folks worry about what’s in fracking fluid, Carlson is more concerned with the naturally occurring pollutants from deep below.

“Sometimes people think it is hazardous because of what we put down there,” said Carlson. “And the truth is, the water that comes back has been in contact with oil and gas compounds for maybe millions of years.”

Wastewater is almost always incredibly salty. It also often contains dissolved metals and compounds like benzene, a known carcinogen, said Carlson. In some places, like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, that wastewater can also be radioactive, as it picks up naturally occurring elements like radium from deep inside the earth. (Waste from Northern Colorado has not been shown to be more radioactive than natural background levels.)

Because of this, such water is usually disposed of, said Greg Duronlow, the environmental manager of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“It is a waste product with some negative characteristics. So it does have to be handled carefully,” said Duronlow.

When a well is producing, companies separate the products that make them money — oil and gas — from the water. In Colorado, that water is usually stored in on-site tanks or pits that fill up. Later, it gets trucked away.

There are a few main things that happen to the wastewater after that.

By far the most common way of dealing with wastewater is disposing of it deep underground, in injection wells. While some energy companies have their own wastewater disposal wells, an injection well industry has also cropped up to meet this need. In the U.S., there are around 30,000 injection wells used to dispose of fluids from oil and gas production.

Even though wastewater is disposed of deep underground, there are still risks. Recently, some injection wells have been linked to earthquakes. Spills are also an issue. Pipelines carrying wastewater can leak, as can holding pits, and trucks transporting waste can spill it.

In Colorado, the spill rate for wastewater is very low — over the last 15 years, just 0.009 percent of all wastewater produced was spilled, according to COGCC data. The agency’s oversight over spills has grown in recent years, and it recently made its spill reporting requirements more stringent, requiring spill reports for even one barrel, rather than five.

“All spills, regardless of their size, are required to be cleaned up by an operator,” said Duronlow. The agency also has tighter restrictions around oil and gas operations that are near public water supply areas, he added.

“I would say an industry with a spill rate of a thousandth of a percent, they are working pretty hard to keep those numbers low,” Duronlow added.

While overall, the state does have a very low spill rate, simply because so much wastewater is produced, the total spill quantities can still be high. From 2005 to 2013, spill amounts ranged from 10,000 to 72,000 barrels (420,000 to 3,024,000 gallons) per year.

In 2008, in Garfield County, a rancher took a drink of water from a tap in his cabin, and swallowed a toxic mix of oil and gas related compounds, landing him in the hospital. The polluted drinking water was contaminated from a produced water holding pit that leaked; the COGCC fined the energy company Williams $432,000.

Other pits containing produced water have also leaked; Oxy USA also received a COGCC fine for contaminating two springs with produced water from leaking pits.

Some companies have tried recycling wastewater, re-using it for hydraulic fracturing future wells. In states like Pennsylvania, where disposing of wastewater is expensive, and Texas, where water is scarce, recycling has grown in popularity. Some Colorado companies are also recycling wastewater.

There are some concerns about this approach. For one, treating the wastewater creates yet another waste stream — the chemicals that were taken out of the water, and are now concentrated. Moving more water around can cause other problems, like increasing the potential for spills as the water is transported and handled.

Sometimes, wastewater is so dirty that cleaning it up to the standards they need for hydraulic fracturing just isn’t worth the cost. The COGCC is working with some companies on recycling produced water to reuse, but “it takes a lot of work to clean up the water to a point even that they want to use it,” said Duronlow.

For every new well drilled and the oil it produces, though, there will be wastewater to be dealt with. Getting a handle on that water — whether it is injected or recycled, piped or trucked — will continue to be a significant task.


The state of oil and gas pipeline regulation in Colorado

February 24, 2015
DJ Basin Exploration via the Oil and Gas Journal

DJ Basin Exploration via the Oil and Gas Journal

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

A spill from an underground pipeline northeast of Denver has contaminated soil and possibly groundwater — the latest of at least 13 spills over the past year from oil and gas pipelines that are largely unregulated.

While none of the recent spills appears unusually large, they highlight a gray area in how Colorado and other states are handling the domestic energy boom.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission receives spill reports but does not regulate or inspect pipelines beyond well pads, COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman said. Federal authorities say they regulate interstate pipelines that transport oil and gas, but this does not cover tens of thousands of miles of production-related pipelines within states.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission regulates nonliquid gas lines around the state, PUC pipeline safety chief Joe Molloy said.

But no government agency regulates the proliferating production and other pipelines that carry natural gas liquids, Molloy said. These can be hazardous, containing ethane, propane and cancer-causing benzene.

A DCP Midstream operator saw stained surface soil about 7 miles north of Keenesburg on Jan. 30 and reported the spill. DCP has excavated 7 cubic yards of the soil and deployed a contractor to conduct lab tests for benzene and other toxic chemicals and to find the leak.

DCP officials “don’t have any more information just yet on source or contamination levels or groundwater impacts of the spill near the Tampa Compressor,” corporate spokeswoman Sarah Rasmussen said. “All of that is still being investigated and assessed.”

Moving oil and gas through pipelines promises safety and environment benefits — an alternative to trains and tanker trucks. For companies, pipelines can be cheaper, depending on fuel costs. In recent years, more trains are hauling crude oil from North Dakota and tar sands from Canada, leading to accidents such as last week’s disasters in Ontario and West Virginia.

Nationwide, more than 2.6 million miles of underground pipelines carry natural gas, crude oil and natural gas liquids from producing fields to refineries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

But PHMSA officials estimate more than 200,000 miles of “gathering line” pipelines are unregulated in Colorado and other states.

The federal authorities are considering expanding their purview to regulate and inspect these pipelines, PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill said.

“We’re here to make sure operators are doing all they can to protect the environment and the safety of the public that may live near these pipelines,” Hill said.

“There’s a lot of development in the country where pipelines that were once in rural areas are no longer as rural. A lot of homes and businesses are now located near these pipelines. We want to make sure operators are indeed making sure the unregulated pipelines are safe.”

In recent Colorado legislative sessions, industry officials pushed to bolster companies’ power to condemn private property in order to install more pipelines.

Yet the impact of pipelines and spills from pipelines remains uncertain.

The COGCC spill database shows DCP reported 13 spills from its pipelines since February 2014. Most appear relatively minor, due to human error or equipment problems, though toxic material in some cases has contaminated groundwater.

Among the spills:

• In January, a DCP trencher hit a pipeline in Weld County, causing a spill, leading to an excavation of 40 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

• In November, a trencher hit an 8-inch pipeline and the spill contaminated groundwater — within a half mile of two water wells — spreading contamination at levels above the standards. DCP contractors excavated 370 cubic yards of soil and removed 40 barrels of contaminated groundwater.

• In September, five to 100 barrels of liquids leaked from a 10-inch underground pipeline inside the town of Frederick.

Colorado regulators have not taken enforcement action in response to any of these spills, according to COGCC records.

“A spill by itself doesn’t necessarily result in enforcement steps, but failure to report it, contain it and clean it up will,” Hartman said.

DCP officials pointed out that the COGCC lowered its threshold for reporting spills in 2014.

“In general, increases in reported releases in 2014 are likely attributable to this substantially lower reporting threshold,” Rasmussen said. For example, she said, DCP reported five spills in 2013 compared with 11 in 2014.

DCP Midstream operates 4,000 miles of various natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines, Rasmussen said.

Oil and Gas Accountability Project organizer Josh Jos wick said state regulators must do more to regulate and inspect pipelines.

“What are the ages of the pipelines that the product is put through now? How well were they put in? Are they being inspected? Was the right material used? The state does not know,” Joswick said.

“We should not just sit here saying ‘Yeah, you can go wherever you want to go.’ That’s too dangerous. There’s too much potential for really negative impacts if something goes wrong.”

More oil and gas coverage here.


Colorado Division of Water Resources: Well Construction Rules 2015 Rulemaking ― Proposed Changes to the 2005 Rules

February 20, 2015


“Central Valley…groundwater pumping…the very definition of unsustainable” — The Mountain Town News

February 17, 2015

Groundwater movement via the USGS

Groundwater movement via the USGS


From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

To grasp the immensity of the groundwater pumping in California during the last century, think back to the last time you flew into Las Vegas. Before descending into McCarran International Airport, you may have swept across Lake Mead. When full, the reservoir is 112 miles long and up to 532 feet deep. It can hold up 28 million acre-feet of water, or about two average-year flows of the Colorado River before diversions.

That, according to the Los Angeles Times, is how much water has been removed from California’s Central Valley since the advent of groundwater pumping. It’s staggering, the very definition of unsustainable.

Groundwater depletion is a problem not just in California, but across the country. Resources created during geologic timescales are being depleted in human lifetimes for cities and farms. In the United States, 14 percent of all water used to irrigate crops comes from mining groundwater aquifers.

Cheap energy and advances in pumping technology around the end of World War II accelerated this depletion. We have gained the artifice of cheap food and irrigated luxuriance in arid environments. The extraction of water above the rate of recharge is now close to 400 cubic kilometers.

“We are robbing our savings account,” says Andrew Stone, executive director of the American Ground Water Trust. Stone points out that population growth and the uncertain effects of climate change will apply more pressure to these subterranean savings accounts.

It’s not inevitable that we pinch these piggy banks until they’re empty. Los Angeles after World War II turned to groundwater exploitation to satisfy growth. But over time it was able to shift to other mechanisms, including recycling, to meet population needs.

Agriculture regions have been slower to adapt. The Central Valley has been Exhibit A in groundwater mining for many decades. It’s 450 miles up and down and, at a maximum, 60 miles wide and wonderfully productive. One-eighth of total agriculture production in the United States occurs here on 1 percent of the land. From avocados to artichokes, potatoes to peppers, much of your grocery store’s produce likely comes from the Central Valley. “Everyone eats there,” as a headline in the New York Times Magazine noted several years ago.

Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada provides some of the water for the crops, but aquifers have allowed the great expansion of farming. This is mining, and similar to mining for ores, aquifer pumping can cause the earth itself to subside. One famous photograph taken in California’s Central Valley in the 1970s of a tall telephone pole showed the extent of subsidence, nearly 30 feet at that point.

sanjoaquinvalleysubsidenceusgs

Soon after that photograph was taken, proposals to methodically address groundwater depletion were laid on the desk of California’s handsome young governor, Jerry Brown. It went nowhere. The issue was too fractious in California then. Only baby steps were taken over the next several decades.

Other states in the West have been more aggressive in adopting state-wide regulation. Colorado’s regulations, for example, were adopted in the late 1960s. They haven’t been a cure-all. Unsustainable extraction of the Ogallala aquifer continues. Denver’s fast-growing southern suburbs, with some of the wealthiest and best-education demographics in the country, depend almost 100 percent on rapidly declining aquifers.

There is no one answer to this unsustainable aquifer mining. Certainly, increased recycling will be one response, as it has been in Los Angeles and soon will be in Denver’s south suburbs. We’ll have to revise our expectations of landscaping, and continue to tinker with how technology can make more efficient use of our supply.

In California, Gov. Brown, now bald and in his 70s, last September signed a trio of laws that together give local jurisdictions tools for planning how to achieve sustainability by 2040. Sustainability here is defined as aquifers recharging, through percolation or direct injection, as rapidly as they are withdrawn. But the laws also reserve a big stick. If local jurisdictions don’t, the state eventually will elbow into local affairs to get the planning done.

Recycling alone can’t alone be the answer for California’s Central Valley or other regions west of the 100th meridian so utterly dependent upon mining of aquifers. Fundamentally, our cheap food, like our cheap energy, is an illusion.

A century ago, hard-rock miners were still making a mess of the West, clawing out high-value minerals and creating the acid-mine drainage, now a significant problem and expense. Ignorance perhaps excuses their actions. With groundwater mining, we have no excuse. We already know we’re on unstable ground.

More groundwater coverage here.


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