Colorado Water Struggles Highlight Impact of Fracking on Farming

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Fracking—known more formally as hydraulic fracturing—produces roughly 25 percent of the U.S. natural gas supply. This increasingly common practice uses pressurized fluid to release trapped oil or natural gas from a well, and has been praised for lowering energy prices. But concerns about fracking’s impacts on human health and the environment have caused many to question its expansion. And now, according to a recent article by Jack Healy of the New York Times, the debate has become even more contentious in the state of Colorado.

Fracking in the United States generates an estimated 8.1 trillion gallons of wastewater daily. (Photo credit: zhuda/Shutterstock)

Fracking requires pumping enormous quantities of water underground to crack dense rock and release stored energy. To meet this demand—up to 5 million gallons per well—energy companies in Colorado have been tapping into municipal water supplies. As Healy explains, “To fill their storage tanks, [the companies] lease surplus water from cities or buy treated wastewater that would otherwise be dumped back into rivers. In some cases, they buy water rights directly from farmers or other users—a process that in Colorado requires court approval.”

In light of last summer’s drought and the long history of water struggle in the West, many Colorado farmers worry that energy companies will outcompete them for precious water supplies. Local farmers pay between $30 and $100 per acre foot of water; recently, oil and gas companies have paid up to $2,000 for the same quantities of water. Fracking currently accounts for less than 1 percent of Colorado’s water usage, but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission estimates that the state will require 16 percent more water for fracking within three years.

Colorado farmers are not alone in questioning the impact of fracking on agriculture. According to Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of the consumer rights group Food & Water Watch, fracking in the United States generates an estimated 8.1 trillion gallons of wastewater daily. One study by Ithaca College identifies a long list of toxic chemicals that are present in this wastewater, including arsenic and heavy metals.

These chemicals can contaminate local pasturelands and croplands, harming livestock, stunting crop growth, and reducing livestock and crop fertility. In Pennsylvania, 28 cattle were quarantined in 2010 after coming in contact with fracking wastewater that had leaked from a nearby holding pond. In addition to affecting livestock, the wastewater killed grass in the surrounding area. In this case, cattle were quarantined to prevent people from eating chemical-laced beef. In other instances, such as at the Park Slope Food Cooperative in New York, consumers are taking action themselves by refusing to eat food produced near fracking wells.

Evidence of fracking’s damaging impact on food production is accumulating across the country, and concern is growing as the practice expands around the planet. In a world where both energy production and food production are priorities, fracking remains a widely disputed issue.

Can fracking coexist with a safe and sustainable food supply? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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