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Bills aim to find ways to make water from gas drilling useable for agriculture

Donna GrayGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Two new bills making their way through the U.S. Congress could set the stage for treating water produced by oil and gas drilling and making it useable by farmers and ranchers for irrigation.The “More Water and More Energy Act,” House bill 902, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (D-Eldorado Springs), would fund research and development pilot programs in several western states to find ways to use produced water for agriculture. If it passes, it would require the Department of Interior to carry out the study and provide $5 million in funding.A companion bill, “More Water, More Energy, Less Waste Act of 2007,” Senate bill 1116, is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colorado).The bills are now making their way through the House and Senate.”Every day, 2 million gallons of produced water are wasted in this nation, unfit for use,” Salazar said in a prepared statement. “Recovering that water could help lift a huge burden off the backs of farmers, ranchers, communities and recreation users.” Produced water comes up with natural gas from deep underground and contains hydrocarbons – crude petroleum – and dissolved solids including salts that in most instances could not be used for irrigation, to water livestock or for domestic use.Across the state, water produced by oil and gas drilling is either recycled or injected into deep wells.In 2003, EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), one of the top natural gas producers in the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado, built a water treatment plant on Hunter Mesa south of Rifle. Originally, it processed water produced not only from its typical local wells, but also from 24 experimental coal bed methane wells, which have since been capped. The plant continues to treat produced water from its other wells.Coal bed methane development poses its own problems with water disposal because coal seams must be dewatered in order to release the gas.The Hunter Mesa plant, as well as two plants added in 2004 in the Parachute area, removes hydrocarbons and dissolved solids, especially salts, and is then reused for drilling operations. The treated water meets state water quality standards for discharge into the Colorado River, although no water was disposed of in that way, said EnCana spokeswoman Wendy Wiedenbeck.”EnCana recycles 90 percent of its produced water,” she said. In 2006, its drilling activity produced 7.7 million barrels of water.As more wells are drilled each year, gas developers are reaching their capacity to use what water they produce. “Currently our water handling facilities are at maximum capacity,” Wiedenbeck said.Williams, also a top gas producer in the Piceance, does not have water treatment plants and recycles all of its produced water, said Williams spokeswoman Susan Alvillar. “In about 10 years we will have to have a disposal plan,” she said.Energy trade groups in Colorado have come out in support of the Salazar and Udall bills. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association endorsed the bills, said Denver attorney Ken Wonstolen, who represents COGA.”There is interest in the arid West to make a beneficial use of produced water,” he said. “The bill would identify the legal and institutional barriers to using it.” As a waste product, produced water does not come under state water law. Under the law water rights are established by the doctrine of prior appropriation commonly known as “first in time, first in right.””If you treat produced water as waste and dispose of it, you’re outside the water right system,” Wonstolen said. “There’s a disincentive to do anything but treat it as waste” because putting it to beneficial use would create legal and financial hurdles.Because it comes from deep underground, produced water would not be subject to state water law because it is not tributary to surface waters, said Dave Merritt, chief engineer with the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District. “Essentially, it would be administered outside the priority system,” he said.But gas operators would have to prove that in water court, said Division 5 engineer Alan Martellaro of the Division of Water Resources, which administers state water law. Once that water is turned to a beneficial use, such as irrigating a farmer’s crop, it would be subject to state water law.Martellaro said buying treated produced water could prove too costly for farmers and ranchers. “Under current laws (gas developers) would need a well permit” that is established in state water court. The attendant legal and engineering fees would add to the selling price of the water.”Can a farmer afford to pay for this water” that could cost hundreds of dollars per acre foot, “when he (now) pays $5 an acre foot or less?” Martellaro asked.Municipalities could afford to make use of such water to augment water diverted from other sources, he added.In the long run, water produced from oil and gas drilling won’t make much of a dent in the state’s need to meet its compact obligations to downstream states along the Colorado River, he said. “We’re talking about” thousands of acre feet (of produced water) as opposed to a need for tens of millions of acre feet to meet the state’s downstream obligations. “It’s a small amount in the grand scheme of things.”Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 16605dgray@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO


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