The coal-bed methane gas boom that dotted northeast Wyoming with rigs and workers in the 2000s and left a legacy of bankruptcies and orphaned wells will also have lingering impacts on groundwater for up to 144 years, according to a new study by the Wyoming State Geological Survey.
Some sandstone aquifers in the Powder River Basin have declined by more than 100 feet due to the industry’s preferred method of pumping large volumes of water from coal seams to release the microbial-formed coal-bed methane gas, according the study, “Groundwater Level Recovery in the Sandstones of the Lower Tertiary Aquifer System of the Powder River Basin, Wyoming.”
The industry has pumped about 1 million acre-feet of water from coal seams since 2001 and discharged it onto the surface, partially depleting coal aquifers as well as associated sandstone aquifers. That’s enough water to fill Alcova Reservoir to maximum capacity more than five times.
“The calculated times of recovery, which vary from 20-144 years with a mean value of 52 years, probably represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade,” the study states.
“Furthermore,” the study continues, “slowing recovery rates commonly observed in some coal seam aquifers may impede the return to predevelopment water levels in the proximal sandstones.”
The most severely drawn down aquifers are within 20 miles of the Powder River, both north and south of Interstate 90, study co-author Karl Taboga said. That’s also the area where much of the remaining active coal-bed methane wells are located. While the geographic coverage of the monitoring wells used to measure water tables is limited, it’s believed the industry’s impact to aquifers elsewhere in the Powder River Basin is less severe.
“It appears to be localized,” Taboga said. “In a couple of cases, a little farther east in the Powder River, you may have a site that has a significant groundwater decline, but five or six miles away you have another site where you’re not seeing a significant decline.”
Ongoing groundwater monitoring in the Powder River Basin provides “a unique opportunity to study long-term groundwater changes,” State Geologist and WSGA Director Erin Campbell said in a press statement. “Understanding how subsurface systems relate to groundwater recovery allow us to best plan future development.”
But there are perhaps even more critical lessons to learn, according to longtime critics of the industry’s dewatering practice.
“The big question is: Will we learn the lesson that we live in a high desert and pumping and dumping and wasting water is the height of greed and ignorance?” the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s former Executive Director Jill Morrison said.
Landowner group: The state was warned
The massive dewatering of groundwater resources has been a point of contention since the beginning of the coal-bed methane gas play in the Powder River Basin in the mid-1990s. In some cases, it sapped water from wells used for livestock and drinking water for homes. While the practice of discharging the water on the surface provided new stock watering ponds for ranchers, it also flooded critical grazing areas and loaded the surface with salts, wreaking havoc on native grasses.
The Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council pressured the state to minimize pumping groundwater and discharging it on the surface. Instead, it urged the state to insist on forcing operators to reinject the water “in a staged fashion.”
But the state didn’t take any actions to limit groundwater pumping and surface discharge until 2007 as the development began to decline.
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“These aquifers took eons to establish and [coal-bed methane] development has significantly dewatered them in less than two decades,” Morrison said Wednesday, adding that she is “not at all surprised” by the report’s findings. “You can’t pump this gigantic volume of water out of aquifers that took eons to be created, and then expect that it’s going to regenerate.”
The diminished aquifers and long-term recovery rates represent potentially higher costs for rural landowners and agricultural operations to access groundwater, as well as municipalities that might rely on groundwater resources in the future, Morrison said.
Many in the Powder River Basin have already felt those types of impacts, Morrison added.
“The state said industry is responsible and they just have to drill you another water well that’s deeper,” Morrison said. “But that didn’t solve the problem because that [deeper] water isn’t as good, it costs more to pump and they didn’t pay for the extra electricity charges.”
For years, hydrologists have speculated at the potential rate that both coal and sandstone aquifers might replenish. Early estimates included a rate of 1 inch per year, Morrison said. The new WSGS study estimates a faster rate and notes that recovery rates will vary widely depending on geology.
“Typically, groundwater levels in the affected sandstone aquifers briefly rise by several feet for a few months after [coal-bed methane gas] production ceases,” according to the study. “But this rapid recovery frequently decreases to one foot or less annually after a year or two.”
Recharge and climate change
Climate change may also play a significant role in the rate of aquifer recovery in the Powder River Basin.
The WSGS study notes that its estimated recovery rates “represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade.”
But Wyoming’s precipitation and snowmelt dynamics are quickly changing due to human-caused climate change, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. While much of Wyoming could see more overall precipitation, less of it will come in the form of snow that drives annual springtime melt.
However, since 2000, the Powder and Tongue River Basins have experienced their longest and deepest droughts compared to the last 100 years, based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, University of Wyoming Department of Geology and Geophysics professor J.J. Shinker said.
“The increase in temperatures coincides with prolonged and deepening regional drought conditions and the trend of increasing temperatures (globally and regionally) is likely to continue well into the projected recovery timeframe,” Shinker told WyoFile via email.
Wyoming’s evolving climate conditions make it extremely difficult to predict aquifer recharge cycles, Shinker said.
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Click a thumbnail graphic to view a gallery of drought data from the US Drought Monitor:
Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:
This Week’s Drought Summary
With a few notable exceptions, the past week was mostly dry in the contiguous U.S. Heavy rain fell in southeast Texas this week, where large parts of ongoing drought or abnormal dryness saw improvement or full removal. Widespread precipitation of over a half inch fell in the Pacific Northwest, though this was primarily in areas not experiencing drought or was not enough to result in improvements to drought conditions. Heavy snow fell in a localized band across parts of western Kansas and eastern Colorado, totaling 27 inches at Mt. Sunflower, Kansas. Snow also fell in the Denver area. These snow events allowed for improvement to ongoing severe and extreme drought. A powerful Nor’easter dropped heavy snow from eastern Virginia northeast into southern and eastern New England, though most of this snow fell in areas without drought. Mostly dry weather continued in Puerto Rico, where moderate drought expanded and severe drought was introduced. After heavy snow in December helped to build up high elevation snowpack in the West, particularly in California, very dry weather took over in January across much of the region, halting improvements to drought conditions and raising concerns about lagging snowpack if the drier weather continues as forecast. Finally, it should be noted that the large-scale winter storm affecting the central and southern Great Plains, Midwest, and parts of the eastern U.S. from the afternoon of February 1 through February 4 will not be accounted for until next week’s map…
This week, a narrow band of heavy snow fell in eastern Colorado and western Kansas, leading to small improvements in severe and extreme drought in these areas. Extreme drought also improved in the Denver area due to snowfall this week. Due to improved precipitation deficits, improved snowpack, and improved soil moisture conditions, moderate and severe drought were improved in southeast and west-central Wyoming. Increasing short-term precipitation deficits, along with unusually warm and windy weather, led to an expansion of severe drought in northwest South Dakota. Short-term precipitation deficits are also starting to build across southwest North Dakota. In northwest North Dakota, increased snowpack allowed for a reduction in moderate, severe, and extreme drought. Conditions continued to dry in the short-term in central and eastern Nebraska, where moderate drought increased in coverage and abnormal dryness grew slightly near and north of Lincoln…
Weather across the West region was mostly dry this week. A small area of precipitation along the Idaho/Montana border improved conditions enough for a small reduction in abnormal dryness there. Exceptional drought was introduced in and around Roswell, New Mexico this week, due to significant short-term precipitation deficits and warm and windy conditions that have resulted in the loss of topsoil. After a very dry January, high elevation snowpack in parts of the West has begun to drift away from the above-normal values from the start of the new year…
Widespread heavy rain fell this week in southeast Texas, leading to improvements in ongoing moderate drought and abnormal dryness there. Otherwise, the week was mostly dry across the region. Extreme drought developed in parts of northern Louisiana and southern Arkansas and northeast Texas, and some ongoing extreme drought areas expanded in this region as well. There, short-term precipitation deficits worsened, and soil moisture and streamflow decreased. Severe drought expanded in south-central Texas and north of Lubbock, while extreme drought north of Lubbock shrank in coverage due to lessened precipitation deficits there. Widespread extreme drought is ongoing across much of northwest Texas and western Oklahoma, with a narrow strip of exceptional drought present in the western Oklahoma Panhandle and northeast New Mexico. Burn bans remain in effect in parts of the Southern Plains, where the winter wheat crop is also struggling…
At the time of writing (the afternoon of Wednesday, February 2), a large-scale winter storm was causing snow and ice accumulation across much of the southern Great Plains and lower Midwest. Precipitation, both wintry and plain rain, was forecast by the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center to continue eastward and northeastward through the middle of the weekend, with some heavier precipitation amounts possible, particularly from Alabama northeast to southern Ohio. On Sunday and Monday (February 6-7), mostly dry weather was in the forecast across the contiguous U.S., though some precipitation was expected along the southeastern coast.
For the period from February 8-12, the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecast strongly favored drier than normal weather across much of the West region. Drier weather was also favored from the central and southern Great Plains east to the Atlantic Coast. Wetter than normal weather was favored in south Texas, the northern Great Plains, and northwest Great Lakes. Above-normal precipitation was also favored for this period in most of Alaska. Warmer than normal temperatures were strongly favored along the Pacific Coast, and in the central and northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest. From New Mexico eastward, colder than normal temperatures were favored across the far southern U.S. Colder than normal temperatures were favored in western Alaska, while southeastern Alaska was more likely to see above normal temperatures.
From Water Education Colorado (Jerd Smith):
Fifteen years ago, deeply worried that a continued drought on the Colorado River would cause a crisis sooner rather than later, the seven U.S. states that share the river’s flows made a historic agreement to jointly manage reservoirs and share shortages that might arise.
The agreement, known in shorthand as the 2007 interim guidelines, is set to be renegotiated beginning this year, ahead of its expiration in 2026.
Another critical set of agreements, known as the 2019 drought contingency plans, are also being re-examined this year as the crisis on the river deepens.
“We’re about to engage in some very difficult discussions,” said Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.
Mitchell’s comments came Jan. 26 at the annual convention of the Colorado Water Congress, which represents hundreds of Colorado water users and utilities, in Aurora.
The Colorado River Basin includes the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the Lower Basin states of Arizona, California and Nevada. It also includes 30 tribal nations and Mexico.
“One of the keys to our success is going to be that we are in line with the other basin states and the U.S. Department of the Interior, but that we are also working with other sovereigns and stakeholders to find solutions,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and others credit the two agreements with keeping the system operational for much of the past 15 years.
“They were successful in that they slowed down the decline of the reservoirs and bought some time to see if hydrology improved,” she said. “News flash: It did not.”
Climate change, the 20-year megadrought affecting the basin, and population growth have super-charged the crisis, causing the river’s flows to decline faster than anyone anticipated, and lakes Mead and Powell to record their lowest levels since they were built, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.
The river system has deteriorated so quickly that last July the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation moved, within a matter of days, to begin emergency releases of water from Utah’s Flaming Gorge, Colorado’s Blue Mesa, and New Mexico’s Navajo reservoirs.
The goal was to protect Lake Powell’s ability to produce hydropower, a green source of electricity that supplies more than 50 cities and electric companies in Colorado alone.
In addition, Lower Basin states have committed to reducing outflows from Lake Mead, a move that reduces some of the pressure on Lake Powell to the north. But few believe these actions will be enough to protect the river system as the weather forecast continues to deteriorate.
The majority of the mountain snows that feed the Colorado River fall in the Upper Basin. Although recent conditions have improved slightly, with snowpack reaching average or above average levels in the western half of Colorado, climate scientists say the runoff forecast is not matching up and attribute lower forecasts to the impact of badly depleted soil moisture caused by prolonged drought.
That has left Upper Basin state water officials wondering how much more water they will have to sacrifice to protect Lake Powell.
“The Secretary of Interior took action to release 150,000 acre-feet of water from Upper Basin reservoirs to protect Lake Powell levels. 36,000 acre-feet of that came from Blue Mesa. It left that unit at 27% full. We saw the harm that caused,” Mitchell said. “It’s difficult to think how much more we can provide.”
Lain Leoniak, an attorney and negotiator from the Colorado Attorney General’s office, said officials are hopeful that the new interim guidelines will contain a road map that hinges less on operating rules and more on weather forecasts.
“We’re going to have to find a way to be responsive to extreme variability in hydrology,” Leoniak said. “We need flexibility built into any post-2026 guidelines, but we don’t want to be engaging in renegotiations every two to three years. That doesn’t work either.”
As teams from across the basin prepare to begin negotiating, Mitchell said Colorado and other Upper Basin states would push to ensure that no one state has to take on more of the burden than another, that all states, and such sovereign nations as the tribal nations and Mexico, as well as other parties, such as environmental groups, would be full participants in the negotiations.
Mitchell also said her negotiating team would push to ensure the Upper Basin states weren’t forced to give up more water than the downstream users on the system.
Under the terms of the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the Upper Basin and Lower Basin states are each entitled to 7.5 million acre-feet of water annually. But any excess water received, or left unused, in the Upper Basin flows to the Lower Basin because much of it cannot be stored here. That situation has given Lower Basin states access to surplus water over the years that they have become reliant on, a fact that Mitchell and others say has to change if the river is going to be brought into balance in this drier world.
“The compact’s intention was that we all had that equal footing. The fact that there have been states that have been able to overuse while we are using less than our apportionment … we don’t want them to get used to that overuse. We have to be focused on making sure that they adjust to what is available to them,” Mitchell said.
As the 1922 compact approaches its 100th anniversary in November, Mitchell said she was hopeful that agreements will be reached in the coming months that will help balance the river and allow it to function well for the next century.
“Hopefully people will be sitting here in 100 years saying [of the negotiators], ‘They did a good job.’”
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.