The State of Water

Hydraulic fracturing, permitting, recycling and new completion methods are responsible for a new water era in N.D. The Bakken magazine spoke with the N.D. State Water Commission about the facts on fracking and water use.
By Emily Aasand | July 10, 2014

This spring, the North Dakota State Water Commission issued a report, “Facts About North Dakota Fracking & Water Use,” which outlines several elements of the fracking process used in the state and how those elements are impacted.
In 2012, records indicate that 12,629 acre-feet of surface and ground water were used for fracking purposes, which was 4 percent of North Dakota's 2012 water consumption.

The report found that most of North Dakota’s water usage, about 56 percent,  goes to irrigation, followed by municipal usage at 22 percent, power general usage at 9 percent, industrial (non-fracking) usage at 6 percent, rural water usage at 3 percent and multi-use and bottling commercial and domestic usage at less than 1 percent.

Hydraulic Fracturing
Hydraulic fracturing––water and other materials are injected under high pressure into a well bore to fracture the rock and release the oil––is increasing in popularity. The wells in North Dakota generally require approximately 7 acre-feet of fresh water for the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process, according to the report. That water is currently obtained from surface water and ground sources.

According to the report, where ground water has been used, it has generally come from freshwater aquifers within 2,000 feet of the surface, or from saline aquifers located between 5,000 and 6,000 feet below the surface. Regardless of the groundwater source, the use of this water for industrial purposes is managed and evaluated carefully by the Office of the State Engineer.  Tapping into surface water to use at well sites is the preferred source, with the Missouri River flowing through the oil region. The Missouri River plays a valuable role in the hydraulic fracturing process both in terms of quality and quantity.

Although the river seems to be a viable option, many North Dakota oil rigs have been denied access within reservoir boundaries by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which forces rigs to seek water elsewhere.

The Corps has been restricting access to the Missouri River under its surplus water policy, in which the Corps contends it has authority through the Flood Control Act of 1944 to charge fees for the use of surplus stored water in the mainstream reservoirs.

Concerns over suitable access points only leave 10 Missouri River miles accessible to industrial water users within the oil producing region of the state.
For water haulers, the limited number of water supply locations translates to long transportation distances and excessive amounts of time spent waiting in lines at water depots, resulting in high water acquisition costs for Bakken oil producers, according to a report by the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center.

With the increase in hydraulic fracturing wells, as well as the increased need for water, the North Dakota State Water Commission has seen a backlog of water permit application reviews throughout the entire state.

According to statements from the North Dakota State Water Commission, careful consideration to new appropriations must be given to ensure that rights of prior appropriators are not unduly affected, the public interest is protected and that the pumping from the resource will be sustainable.

“To ensure compliance with water laws and rules, increased monitoring and enforcement activities are required by the water appropriation division,” says Jon Patch of the Water Appropriations Division.  “Monitoring of water sales for industrial use has resulted in a real-time monitoring initiative, monthly meter reporting and spot meter inspections.  These added regulatory duties and responsibilities directly related to the recent oil boom have substantially increased the workload for our staff.”

Recycling Water
Operator's interest in using recycled water at well sites is increasing due to the restrictions on available water use and the cost savings possible from reusing flowback and produced water. 

“Once water has been permitted for a particular use, the state engineer does not require re-permitting of that water if it is contained within the control of the process and not released into and recaptured from the managed water courses,” says Patch.
According to research done in 2013 by the EERC, there are three potential options for treatment, reuse, and recycling of nontraditional water supply sources for use in the Bakken. They are treatment and reuse of the water used for hydraulic fracturing after it returns to the surface (flowback), treatment and use of wastewater from other nontraditional sources, such as saline groundwater and municipal wastewater, and use of hydraulic fracturing fluid systems that work with saline water rather than high-quality water.

These approaches aren’t without challenges though.

“Bakken flowback tends to be very salty and only a portion of it returns to the surface. Treatment of other nontraditional water sources may be easier, but transportation costs may be too high. The use of salt-tolerant fracturing fluids may hold promise, but these formulations are just beginning to be developed,” says the EERC report. 

Development of new technologies to recycle or otherwise utilize flowback, produced water, or saline groundwater would provide multiple benefits to the state and industry and improve the quality of life for residents impacted by truck traffic and associated dust and road maintenance issues.

Some of those benefits would be decreased demand on freshwater resources, decreased wastewater disposal costs and associated costs for industry, fewer issues associated with the heavy volume of truck traffic in the region, increased versatility in water supply options, resulting in decreased production costs and decreased environmental footprint for Bakken development.

Permit Basics
According to the Water Commission, in North Dakota, all water that flows in the natural watercourses and all groundwater is considered to be waters of the state and are available for appropriation for beneficial use. The state engineer has been given the regulatory authority to appropriate the waters of the state through a permitting system.

Water permits are required for all industrial use no matter how much water is used. Two types of permits are available, conditional and temporary, according to the study.

Conditional permits begin the establishment of a water right, which will last in perpetuity provided the water is continued to be put to beneficial use.

“These permits establish a fundamental property right and can be difficult to obtain in areas of high competition,” says Patch.

Three principles must be met in order to apply for a conditional permit: no undue impacts to prior water rights, the water right is in the public interest, and the use from the resources will be sustainable.
Temporary water permits are easier to obtain provided that excess water is available. “By law, temporary permits last up to one year maximum and no water right accrues,” says Patch. “Because of the complexities of the systems, temporary permits are not typically issued from groundwater sources.”

Slickwater Fracks on the Rise
With an increase in slickwater fracks, there will be an increase in the volume of water used.
Water quality isn’t much of a concern with this type of drilling, however, and alternative sources may become much more viable allowing the reuse of produced and flowback water and brine water sources like the Dakota aquifer, according to Patch. 
“The ongoing need and increase in maintenance water may account for a substantial portion of the ongoing water need into the future,” says Patch. “Estimates indicate as many as 2,000 wells per year over the next 20 years, each possibly requiring 10 to 15 barrels of fresh water added to them each day, may result in a doubling of the current use into the future.”

Author: Emily Aasand
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine