U.S. Geological Survey water studies will aid energy policy-making | PostIndependent.com

U.S. Geological Survey water studies will aid energy policy-making

John Colson
Post Independent Staff

RIFLE — A researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey on Thursday conceded that two recent reports on water quality in the Piceance Basin may seem too esoteric and filled with scientific jargon to be of much use to the general public right now.

But, said USGS scientist Judith Thomas, “It’s information. A lot of data is being collected, we’ve brought a lot of it together … this is the baseline.”

She said that as further studies are done, and more information is collected, the studies will be invaluable in helping government and the oil and gas industry make policies aimed at ensuring the industry can do its work without damaging the region’s water quality values.

“It’s an important book mark,” she said of the information being gathered currently, adding that her agency is working on a water quality study for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, due out later this year, that will have an executive summary that will be written with the general public in mind.

Thomas described two recently released studies conducted by her agency — one of the groundwater in the Piceance Basin, the other of surface water in the same region — in cooperation with dozens of local governments, state and federal agencies and energy industry companies.

The studies, she said, provided an overview of water quality data taken from public and industry sources, which has been gathered from 1946 to 2009 in the case of groundwater, and from 1959 to 2009 concerning surface waters, or creeks and rivers.

In the groundwater study, she said, researchers focused on data from more than 1,500 sites for monitoring wells and samples taken from surface waters

She said 70 percent of the samples revealed the presence of “suspended solids,” mostly salts, that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s “secondary standard” for salt in groundwater.

“It’s probably not a big surprise to anyone here that the water’s hard,” she remarked.

But, she added, eight percent of the samples exceeded the EPA’s “primary standard,” though most of those results came from Rio Blanco County. Some, however, came from the Mamm Creek area. Thomas did not say what the findings might represent in terms of water quality, and was not available for further commend on Friday.

For the surface water studies, she said, data from 347 sites were examined, which showed that suspended salts in the Colorado River declined as the river approaches the Utah state line. The same was true for selenium, a particular chemical element that is regulated by the EPA to protect the public’s health, and that is found in relatively high concentrations in the Lower Gunnison River.

In the same data, she said, results showed that the White River is experiencing a rise in dissolved salts as it flows downward, although she said more detailed studies are needed to find where the salt load is coming from and what it might mean for human health.

She said her agency has recommended further studies of the Colorado River between Glenwood Springs and the Cameo power plant near Grand Junction, although she added that the USGS alone cannot afford to pay for those studies.

Instead, she said, the group of government and industry partners who have contributed to the studies so far will be asked whether they can help with additional studies in the future.

In a conversation following her presentation, Thomas said the studies do not directly answer questions about whether drilling activities in the Piceance Basin have resulted in the migration of “thermagenic methane” from the deeply buried formations where it normally exists, to the more shallow aquifers where it has been detected in some areas.

Thermagenic methane, according to scientists, is produced deep in the earth, along with an array of other compounds commonly associated with natural gas and oil deposits.

Biogeneic methane, which also shows up in oil and gas wells, is created by biological chemical interactions in shallow geologic formations, far closer to the surface than where thermagenic methane typically is found.

Industry critics have maintained that thermagenic methane is making its way to the surface wherever oil and gas wells drill deep into the earth’s crust, contaminating drinking water aquifers.

Industry scientists, however, have said there is no evidence of that happening on a broad scale due to industry activities.

According to Garfield County Oil and Gas liaison Kirby Wynn, a powerpoint version of Thomas’ presentation will be on the county website (www.garfield-county.com) under the oil and gas department button, as well as the two study documents that Thomas referred to in her report to the EAB.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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