Groundwater Supplies Are Depleted And at Risk From Fracking

Figure: Grant Ferguson et al., 2018

The Revelator, a publication of the Center for Biological Diversity, reported on a new study that found that “fresh” groundwater is 50% less plentiful in several key U.S. regions than scientists previously believed.  Therefore, digging deeper to find groundwater that is drinkable (not too salty or contaminated) is an increasingly infeasible answer to water shortages across the country.

The scientists from the University of Arizona found that groundwater aquifers are being depleted not only by excessive withdrawals but also by the oil and gas industry contaminating deep groundwater supplies by using those areas to withdraw water and/or inject contaminated water that is a byproduct of fracking.

  • In many regions, the oil and gas industry uses “pore” spaces for energy production and waste disposal and those uses are rendering many deep water aquifers contaminated.
  • In the past, digging deeper to find usable water underground has been a successful source of fresh water, but that deep groundwater needs to be fresh and free of contaminants.
  • The researchers found that the oil and gas industry uses fresh and brackish water, both of which are drawn from the deep aquifers, which is another reason for the shortages.

For example, the scientists found that in Wyoming and the Michigan, where oil and gas activities are relatively shallow and in close proximity to fresh and brackish water, there is a greater chance that those activities contaminate important groundwater resources. In fact, the water supply in Pavillion, Wyoming has already been contaminated by oil and gas activity.  

A second problem is that many deep aquifers in the eastern part of the U.S. have high salinity — the researchers found that “a number of aquifers in the West have deep freshwater reserves,” but  “the water in parts of the eastern and central U.S. becomes salty at much shallower depths.”

Why This Matters:  We are sucking water out of the ground at unsustainable rates, particularly in areas that have already depleted surface water supplies, like the Central Valley of California.  But we are also using up and contaminating our deep groundwater supplies in other parts of the country due to fracking.  It is like finding out that your savings account is only worth half what you thought.  Climate change is creating droughts and water shortages, and now we are making both climate change and water supply challenges worse by fracking for oil and gas.  We may need the water in the long run more for drinking than for fracking for oil and gas extraction.  Yet another reason why we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

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