Ranchers worry oil wells will use up water
U.S. Water News Online
MANNING, N.D. — State officials are trying to assess future water needs for oil development amid ranchers' fears they will run out.
"People want to know if they're going to wake up and not find water," Dunn County Commissioner Bob Kleeman told members of the State Water Commission at a recent meeting.
"When are you gonna say, 'Whoa?"' he asked Water Commission representatives.
"People are really scared out there. Their dams are dry already and the Southwest Water Pipeline is not here yet," Kleeman said. The pipeline brings Missouri River water west.
Bob Shaver, the commission's director of water appropriations, said the commission has a backlog of 300 water permit applications and the 10 that are pending in Dunn County. He said each will take at least six months to approve.
Shaver said the commission is not about to approve permits to run people out of water.
"We won't let that happen. That's why we monitor," he said. "All approvals will be sustainable over the long term."
Drilling in the Bakken shale formation of western North Dakota involves fracturing rock to get to the oil. It's estimated that each hydro-fracturing job takes roughly 1 million gallons of water, Shaver said, and in Dunn County, water is in short supply.
"They've been in a pretty severe drought in the last couple of years. People are losing their wells just under natural conditions and having to find alternate sources, and that's the lifeblood out there," he said.
Shaver said existing ranch wells will have "senior" water rights in Dunn County, but some shallow wells may have to be drilled deeper.
Shaver and Alan Wanek, the state hydrology manager, said the department has been working with the state Department of Mineral Resources to try to determine the future water demands from oil drilling. The state has about 85 rigs, and other applications for water depots are pending around the state's oil patch.
"It's a very tough number to get our arms around," Shaver said.
"There are bottlenecks right now of getting the oil to the refinery. Is there a point at which we're kind of leveling off until we get infrastructure built?" he said. "Getting rigs, getting trained crews. There's just a variety of factors. It's kind of difficult to estimate."
Drillers prefer groundwater because untreated lake or river water could "sour" wells by injecting bacteria into the oil formations, Wanek said.
The state already knows the Fox Hills aquifer, which underlies most of the West, is declining about 2 feet a year.
In Dunn County, the state will monitor 17 wells in the Killdeer Aquifer, which curves from southeast of Killdeer up toward the Killdeer Mountains. Hydrologist Andrew Nygren said the aquifer, used by ranches and the City of Killdeer, still has another 140 feet of water depth, though it has dropped slightly.
"There's nothing to indicate it's going dry," he said.
Tim Loh, a member of the Dunn County Planning and Zoning Board, said residents need to know as much as possible about their own wells and their water sources.
"Depending where people live and what type of well they have, this is something to be aware of," Loh said. "Maybe they want to put their well deeper now, but the most important thing is that people are educated."
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