Water treatment plant a WPX money saver

Mike McKibbin
Citizen Telegram Editor
Mike McKibbin/Citizen Telegram
Staff Photo |

PARACHUTE — Contrary to what might be the popular perception, at least one natural gas company in Garfield County does not use a huge amount of fresh water, thanks to two water treatment plants that recycle most of the water needed, according to WPX Energy officials.

However, it’s very costly to treat the water to drinking standards, although it can be done.

WPX held a July 29 tour of its 34-acre Parachute treatment plant, two miles northwest of Parachute, for about 30 people who signed up with the Middle Colorado River Watershed Council. The company also offered an Aug. 5 visit to a Citizen Telegram reporter. WPX also has a 30-acre water treatment plant near the county landfill in Rulison.

Watershed Council Manager Laurie Rink said their tour included a PowerPoint presentation to explain the water treatment process, focused on the reuse of produced water.

Produced water is primarily salty water, but it also contains varying amounts of hydrocarbons; industrial chemical additives; naturally occurring radioactive materials, such as radium 226 or 228; and sediments known as total dissolved solids. Produced water is considered hazardous waste and requires special disposal and handling.

The WPX plants remove those substances to lower levels and return the water for hydraulic fracturing use.

“We get almost 100 percent removal of the hydrocarbons,” WPX Production Engineer Tyler Bittner said at the Aug. 5 tour.

Any remaining hydrocarbons are removed by bacteria, WPX Operations Manager Brad Kesler added.

The water is eventually pumped into five holding ponds, where it’s kept circulating by floating pumps and sprinkler systems.

Drinking water standards costly

The final product does not meet drinking water standards, and would not be what WPX needs anyway, said Bittner.

“We don’t treat the salts, because if it didn’t have salts, the equipment would eventually be harmed,” he explained.

The water is also too salty for agricultural use, Bittner added. State regulations call for a total dissolved solids level of below 3,000 for ag use, while the water that goes through the WPX treatment process is between 12,000 to 20,000 total dissolved solids, Bittner said.

“We did run a bench test this year, just to see if we could get to drinking water standard with this process and the answer is yes,” he added. “But it would take so much more treatment, there’s a cost factor involved.”

Even if WPX were to treat its produced water to meet agricultural or drinking water standards, it would be “a drop in bucket” in terms of water supplies or drought mitigation, Bittner said.

“Our drilling program uses 58 acre-feet of water a year,” he stated. “You look at other water users, like municipalities, and together, they use much more than that.”

Bittner said WPX does augment its water supplies through private contracts “but that’s really miniscule.”

The Parachute plant was previously an evaporation system for Barrett Resources, Kesler noted. WPX spent about $20 million on the treatment equipment, tanks and systems at both sites, he added.

The plants have helped WPX lower its operating costs in the Piceance Basin, Bittner said.

“Actually, we have some of the lowest operating costs within the company,” he added, since the drilling and completion programs costs are also less due to the use of recycled water.

“If we pull water from the [Colorado River], we have to treat it before we can use it,” Bittner said. “The salts are important so we don’t damage the equipment, and we can manage the fluctuations in rig numbers, so we have economies of scale.”

Fewer trucks, fewer issues

Bittner said the produced water used to be separated at the well site and stored in tanks for transfer to trucks and then other locations.

“When we started adding these facilities, we eliminated some 300 truck trips a day,” Bittner said. “That was something people would notice, and we saw a plant like this as a way to lessen our impact on people and roads, especially on the south side of the Colorado River, where there’s more people.”

Kesler said as many as 100,000 truckloads of produced water would be taken from well sites before the treatment plants were built.

Trucks are still used to remove liquids from older wells, Bittner noted.

During times when rig activity is low, such as recent years, the plant treats more water than WPX can use, Bittner said. Excess water is treated to standards required to be injected deep underground, he added.

“We also have water sharing agreements with some of the smaller operators and Encana,” Bittner said. “So they don’t have to pull as much water from the river, either.”

The Parachute plant is permitted to process 9 million barrels of water a year, but last year processed just 4 million barrels, Kesler said.

The entire plant is automated, with pressure monitors and a computer screen that tells an operator where any problems might have developed, Bittner said.

“I can even get on my smart phone and check the plant,” Kesler added.

Only two people are needed on the 34-acre site most of the time, he said.

“What I like is it really makes it safe,” Kesler said.

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