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As Oil and Gas Drilling Competes for Water, One New Mexico County Says No

The Mora River

The Mora River upstream of Watrous in Mora County, New Mexico. In an effort to protect its water sources, Mora County has banned oil and gas extraction on county land. Photo: J. N. Stuart/Flickr/cc

 

In drought-plagued New Mexico, water is gold.
 
And this week, Mora County in the northern part of the state took a firm stand to protect its precious liquid:  it banned all oil and gas extraction from county lands.  It is believed to be the first county in the nation to take such action.
 
Big oil companies, notably Shell, had reportedly already leased more than 100,000 acres of land in Mora.
 
But the county’s new ordinance calls for a state constitutional amendment that puts community rights above corporate property rights.
 
Of concern in Mora, and increasingly throughout the country, is the potential harm to water sources from oil and gas drilling, including a practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process entails injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure deep underground so as to break up rocks and release the oil and gas they hold.
 
Because many wells cut through water-bearing formations called aquifers, fracking risks contaminating drinking water supplies with hazardous chemicals.  Yet fracking is exempt from compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
 
Besides the threat of water contamination, fracking also competes for local water supplies. A single well can require more than 5 million gallons of water.
 
Across the United States, 47 percent of hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells are being developed in highly water-stressed regions, according to a report released this week by Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit organization that educates investors about corporate environmental risks.
 
Colorado and Texas, two states where fracking operations have expanded rapidly, exhibited the highest degree of water risk, according to the Ceres report.  In Colorado, 92 percent of shale gas and oil wells were in “extremely high” water stress regions, defined as areas in which cities, industries and farms are already using 80 percent or more of available water.
 
In Texas, 51 percent of wells were in “high or extremely high” water stress regions.  In some Texas counties, water use for fracking accounted for more than one-fifth of total water use.
 
The Ceres study used well data available at FracFocus.org and water stress maps developed by the Aqueduct Project at the World Resources Institute.
 
While the hydraulic fracturing industry has made some progress toward use of recycled and saline water, which could reduce competition for scarce freshwater supplies, these sources are still a minor component of the overall industry’s water demand.  And even with use of alternative water sources, the risks of groundwater contamination from the chemicals used in fracking remain.
 
With hydraulically fractured gas and oil production projected to double in the coming years, the bottom line, according to Ceres, is that “competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors.”
 
But Mora County’s decision – to keep more climate-altering fossil fuels in the ground so as to preserve and safeguard local water supplies for its people – draws a more precautionary line in the sand.  It’s a line other counties may want to draw, too – because without adequate supplies of safe drinking water, no region’s future is bright.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.” She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.

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