Cities selling water for fracking

Industry cannot be allowed to outbid all other uses

The Denver Post website headline was routine, and the story was just a few paragraphs and a link to a longer piece in the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

The topic, though, was one of the most important in the state: “Sales of Loveland water increasing for Front Range hydraulic fracturing use.”

The story was accompanied by a picture of a water-service employee turning off a fire hydrant after filling several trucks headed for drilling sites. Municipalities often allow water haulers to use hydrants because opening them helps to flush water lines. The hydrants are metered, and haulers pay premium prices of about twice the rate as residential customers, helping to keep water departments’ enterprise funds in the black.

“As gas producers expand their operations into the western fringe of the Wattenberg field in Larimer and Boulder counties,” the Reporter-Herald said, “their demands for water reach into municipalities up and down the Front Range, Loveland among them.”

Each underground fracking process requires about 500,000 gallons, or approximately 1.5 acre feet.

The amount of water used for drilling and fracking throughout the state currently is less than 1 percent of total water use. A Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesperson said that fracking in Colorado uses less water than the ski industry takes for snowmaking or Front Range golf courses require to remain lush.

For the short term, Loveland has plenty of water. A city official said 28,000 acre feet of Loveland’s water right flowed downstream, unused, thanks in part to last year’s wet weather.

In 2011, though Loveland sold 1,500 acre-feet, enough to meet the needs of more than 1,500 typical families for a year. Farmers, by contrast, rented 28 acre feet. And Loveland is not the only Front Range city selling water.

Not stated were several related facts: Municipalities up and down the Front Range have been seeking ways to import more water from the Western Slope to support growth. The Western Slope energy industry is growing as well, in ways that use a lot of water and in ways that, potentially, pollute water. Energy companies have been quietly buying up water rights.

And the Western Slope is a dry place. Much of the water that flows from the peaks is owed to downstream users.

The energy industry is widely supported for good reasons. Everyone uses gas and oil. Small towns, especially, need the economic boost the industry brings. Jobs are hard to come by, and oil and gas jobs pay well.

But – and this is a huge caveat – water is a finite resource. When it’s gone – dedicated to some uses at the expense of others, sent downstream, pumped over the Continental Divide, polluted – it’s gone.

Allowing drillers to pay a premium for water may be a boon to those who currently have extra water to sell, but selling water to the highest bidder carries definite risks. What happens, for example, when ag producers are outbid?

Western Colorado residents must pay attention to the true costs of energy extraction, and they must work to identify the point at which the cost, in water, is simply too high. That point may be far in the future, as drilling proponents argue, but it definitely exists.

The Western Slope will be one of the first places where it becomes visible, and must be identified in advance, well before industries begin to grind to a halt because there’s neither enough water nor enough energy to go around.