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Farmers and frackers compete for water in Western US

Battles over water in the arid American West are nothing new, and demands on the limited resource are growing fast. A boom in energy drilling made possible by hydraulic fracturing has added a new player to the mix just as the region enters another serious drought.

"This new player, fracking, is going to be in competition with Ag (agriculture) water," maintains Bill Midcap of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "We're going to have to find that happy medium where we can all get along."

Getting along is not always easy in a region where the saying, "Whiskey's for drinking, and water's for fighting" has been around since frontier times.

"They have no conception on the eastern side of the Mississippi River of how precious and important it is," says Brian Werner, spokesman for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. "We get by on 13, 14 inches of (annual) precipitation."

"That's a laugher for much of the country," according to Colorado State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. "Yet we're one of the wetter areas of the West. Other areas may only be looking at 6 to 10 inches of precipitation a year."

"From a Western perspective the rain that falls on your head barely waters anything. The snow that falls most winters, somewhat generously, in the mountains and then melts during the spring and summer is the water supply for most agricultural and municipal uses."

This year the Rockies got less than half the average amount of snow. As a result, a recent report by the U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 96 percent of Colorado is experiencing some level of drought. Other Western states are not faring much better.

When water dries up, arguments about who gets how much heat up.

'We're going to have to find that happy medium . . .'

- Bill Midcap, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

"The last couple of years I think the issue of water use and oil and gas development have come to the fore," Werner says. That became apparent at a recent water auction in Northern Colorado when some complained that energy companies were outbidding farmers.

"They have a lot more money to bid for water on the open market than any farmer does," Midcap points out.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance believes fears about fracking using too much water are overblown. She points to a recent study by the Colorado Division of Water Resources that showed that in 2010, 85 percent of the water used in Colorado went to agriculture, 7.4 percent to municipalities and less than 1 percent to hydraulic fracturing.

"It's certainly an issue that we take very seriously," Sgamma says. "But when you consider the jobs and the economic impact that you get from oil and gas and you compare that to the water usage, it's a pretty small usage for that economic impact."

But quantity is not the only concern. Fears about what fracking might do to water quality are also being questioned.

"I think we ought to also pay attention to the quality of the water. What happens to the water after (oil and gas wells) are fracked? We know it goes really deep into the Earth's surface, but there have been mistakes made in the past."

Again, Sgamma says these fears are overblown, pointing out that wells are drilled thousands of feet below the level where aquifers lie. And if they pass through aquifers, steps are taken to ensure nothing will leak.

"There are seven to nine layers of steel and cement between the well bore and any underground aquifer. There are several layers of protection to make sure that (underground) water cannot go into the well, and oil or gas cannot get into the aquifer."

The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new rules to regulate fracking on public lands. But questions about how much water is used in fracking, and whether or not the process affects water quality will likely not go away soon, especially in times of drought in the American West.

"We know from the past," explains Doesken, "that any bad year might be part of a multiyear drought episode. And (right now) we don't know about next year."

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