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Oil shale would dewater, damage West Slope rivers

Ken Neubecker
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
My Side
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There is a lot of talk these days about developing the last available water in the Colorado River. The Front Range is impatient to get moving on long planned projects to move more water east of the Continental Divide.

Despite the pending agreement with Denver Water, these projects will continue to remove substantial amounts of water. The Western Slope itself is still growing and will need more water. Restoring and maintaining healthy rivers is an increasingly important need for water.

Then add the potential of oil shale into the mix.



Recent irrational calls in Congress for oil shale to rescue us from higher gas prices could place an even greater strain on our water needs. What’s troubling is that decisions about these vital issues, water and oil shale development, may wind up being made with very little input from people on the Western Slope.

Oil shale isn’t going to lower the price of your next fill-up anytime soon, nor will it make America energy independent. The industry is still saying, as it has for decades, that it will take at least another 10 to 15 years to decide if it will even make significant investments in oil shale. If we think oil shale is going to solve our energy problems and lower costs in the near future we better think again.



But if we do figure out a way to economically develop oil shale, the impacts to Western water could be major.

The best estimates for oil shale water use range from three times the amount consumed annually in Mesa County, which is 110,000 acre feet, to 50 percent more than the Denver metro area consumes annually, which is 378,000 acre feet. (An acre-foot is a measure of water volume equal to 325,851 gallons, or the amount of water it would take to cover a football field 10 inches deep.)

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s draft environmental impact statement also predicts that large-scale commercial development of oil shale could result in the permanent loss of nearly half of stream fisheries on BLM lands, and 35 percent of Colorado River cutthroat trout fisheries.

Despite the poor prognosis for oil shale, plans are being laid to develop more scarce Western Slope water for oil shale. Senior agricultural water rights have been purchased by oil companies, storage projects continue to be proposed for the Yampa River, and ranchers near Meeker are trying to stave off plans for reservoirs on the White River that would inundate their lands.

Water quality is another serious issue.

The major headwaters diversion projects by Front Range water users impact downstream reaches of the river in oil shale country. Diverting high mountain water to the Front Range means less clean water is flowing west to help dilute the dissolved salts from erodible soils and hot springs, and the effluent from wastewater treatment plants.

Adding pollutants from fracking fluids and toxins from oil shale development paints a bleak picture for the future Colorado River.

While we need to continue to remind the Front Range that it can and should live with less water, we should also be realistic about oil shale.

The Colorado River was known as the Grand River up until 1921 when it was renamed. If oil shale comes to fruition, we may have to rename the state’s namesake river again. What do you call a dewatered and polluted backwater slough that was once a point of pride?

What we can do now is ensure that we leave a legacy of a place worth living, where magnificent rivers provide the clean water we need and where our children can still fish and our wildlife thrive. The Western Slope is not simply a sacrificial colony providing unsustainable resources to places far removed from the real impacts or costs.

The Bureau of Land Management is revisiting decisions made during the Bush administration regarding the future of oil shale development in the West. They are initiating a series of public hearings in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah.

Please come voice your thoughts and concerns about what oil shale development will mean to water in the West.

The meetings are from 1-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, and Thursday, May 4 in Golden. Details can be found at http://www.westernriversinstitute.org

– Ken Neubecker is the executive director of the Western Rivers Institute and a past president of Colorado Trout Unlimited. He is a long time advocate for Western Slope rivers and lives in Carbondale.


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