The latest domestic energy boom is sweeping through some of the nation’s driest areas of our nation, drawing millions of gallons of water to unlock oil and gas reserves from beneath the Earth’s surface.  Hydraulic fracturing, or the drilling technique commonly known as fracking, has been used for decades to blast huge volumes of water, fine sand and chemicals into the ground to crack open valuable shale formations.  But now, as energy companies vie to exploit vast reserves west of the Mississippi, fracking’s new frontier is expanding to the same lands where crops have shriveled and waterways have dried up due to severe drought.  Those states mostly affected are Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

While fracking typically consumes less water than farming or residential uses, the exploration method is increasing competition for the precious resource, driving up the price of water and burdening already depleted aquifers and rivers in certain drought-stricken stretches.  Some farmers and city leaders worry that the fracking boom is consuming too much of a scarce resource, while others see the push for production as an opportunity to make money by selling water while furthering the nation’s goal of energy independence.

Along Colorado’s Front Range, deep-pocketed energy companies have driven up the price of water.  Water that use to cost farmers and ranchers anywhere from $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water is now costing $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot. The Denver suburb of Aurora made a $9.5 million, five-year deal last summer to provide the oil company Anadarko 2.4 billion gallons of excess treated sewer water.

The county seat of Greeley, Colorado sold 1,575 acre-feet of water last year to contractors that supply fracking companies, and made about $4.1 million.  It sold farmers nearly 100 times more water but netted just $396,000.

In northwest Louisiana, as the production rush began in the Haynesville Shale in 2009, the state water agency ordered oil and gas companies to stop pulling groundwater from the local aquifer that also supplied homes and businesses, and use surface water instead.

In South Texas, where drought has forced cotton farmers to scale back, local water officials said drillers are contributing to a drop in the water table in several areas and many wells are expected to completely dry up by the middle of this summer.

The amount of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well varies greatly, depending on how hard it is to extract oil and gas from each geological formation.  In Texas, the average well requires up to 6 million gallons of water, while in North Dakota each well requires 50,000 to 350,000 gallons.  98 % of the material used in fracking is made up of water and sand, while the remaining 2 % is assorted chemicals.

In towns across North Dakota, the wellhead of the North American energy boom, the locals have taken to quoting the adage: “Whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting.”

It’s not that they lack water, like Texas and California, but in fact they are swimming in it, and it is free for the taking.  Yet as the state’s Bakken shale fields have grown, so has the fight over who has the right to tap into the multimillion-dollar market to supply water to the energy sector.

North Dakota now accounts for over 10 percent of U.S. energy output, and production could double over the next decade.   While in some states, regulators have stepped in to limit the volume or type of water that energy companies can use during drought conditions; this has not been the case in North Dakota.

At the heart of this battle is a scrappy government-backed cooperative, conceived to ensure fresh water in an area where its drinkability is compromised.

The co-op has decided to sell 20 percent of its water to frackers to help keep prices low and pay back state loans.  That has not gone down well with the Independent Water Providers, a loose confederation of ranchers, farmers and small businesses that for years has supplied fracking water.

Since opening in January, the co-op has tried to limit the power of the confederation with an aggressive legal and lobbying strategy.  The Independent Water Providers have fought back, arguing that the co-op shouldn’t be selling fracking water at all.  The state legislature stepped in with a law last month designed to quell the tension and nurture competition, but industry observers expect the acrimony to continue.

Energy companies get most of their water in the state by trucking it from depots to oil and natural gas wells. Some wells require more than 650 truckloads of water.

Fracking water depots, which cost roughly $200,000 to build and can gross more than $700,000 per year, are typically small metal buildings on concrete slabs filled with pumps and small tanks connected to the Missouri River or local aquifers.  They can have two to six hookups and fill water trucks with as much as 7,800 gallons of water per visit.

The government-backed co-op has nine water depots to hold the fresh water that is piped from the treatment plant in Williston, North Dakota.  It plans to build four more depots throughout the Bakken and hugely expand its pipeline system to bring fresh water to more homes.

On the other side, Independent Water Providers member JMAC Resources will build more water depots in the region and a massive pipeline just south of the Missouri River to supply oil wells. Other members of the group have also applied for depot permits.

North Dakota water suppliers do not pay for water, and the state legislature rejected a proposed water tax earlier this year.  Each side’s plans will rapidly increase the options that energy companies have to access water, further depressing prices.

Regardless of who is the big winner in this fight for water, the question still remains, what are we going to do when the next drought hits North Dakota?  We, as a state continue to “cater” to the oil companies at the same time the oil boom devastates our roads and highways in western North Dakota.  Everyone looks in favor of the recent oil “boom” in North Dakota, but what will be the lasting effects in 30 years, when the “bust” arrives.