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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

Browse articles and find a flipbook of the magazine here.

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Water Education Colorado

Produced Water Generates Doubts, Data, Discussion

By Lori Ozzello

‘It's a long trip,’ says Ken Valentine.

Valentine is an engineer for a Pueblo steel company during the week and a seventh generation rancher on the weekends. In between, he meets with state, county and town officials plus his southeast Colorado neighbors.
Valentine and his neighbors are intent on protecting their irrigation systems, land, crops, livestock and families from the effects of coalbed methane development in the Raton Basin.

The 2,200 square mile basin straddles the Colorado-New Mexico line. It stretches across north Las Animas County into Huerfano County and at its widest is about 50 miles from east to west. According to a June 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study, coalbed methane resources in the basin are an estimated 10.2 trillion cubic feet.

‘Colorado in general has been very pro mineral development,’ says Valentine. ‘Now we're having problems with water, safety, and the environment. The state is working feverishly to re-permit (the coalbed methane wells) to protect our irrigation systems.’

The Valentine Ranch is just miles from the Ludlow Massacre site, north of Trinidad and west of Aguilar. The ranch reaches west toward the Sangre de Cristos and is home to elk, bear and deer in addition to the Valentines and their cattle. When snow socked the area in January and February, they left extra feed for the deer and elk.

Valentine's mother, a Las Animas County native, writer, and historian, is in her 62nd year on the ranch. His brother, Dan Valentine, takes care of day-to-day operations. His two daughters, pre-veterinary medicine students at Colorado State, are interested in someday running it.

‘I can't see my heritage going down the river,’ Valentine says.

As concerns escalated about the effects of coalbed methane drilling, Valentine and others went into action, meeting, making phone calls, setting up Web sites, sharing information. Valentine says it's hard for some in the two counties to speak up about the impacts of coalbed methane development because they depend on the oil companies for income.

In Colorado, mineral rights, like water rights, are separate property rights. When a person purchases rural agricultural property they most likely also acquire the associated water rights. What the buyer may not get are mineral rights. What's more: mineral rights supersede surface rights. If the mineral rights owners want to drill, they have the right. The two parties are supposed to work together to allow the mineral owners reasonable access for exploration and extraction, but surface owners can not block the development of the mineral resources by the mineral owners.

‘Our practice is to negotiate and compensate,’ says Jerry Jacob, environmental and regulations manager for Pioneer Natural Resources, which has 1,800 wells in Las Animas County. Before Pioneer began drilling, the company used satellite photos to locate jeep trails and back roads. ‘We try to fit our operations to the disturbance that already exists. We used those (roads) and upgraded them to all weather before we built any others.’

Coalbed methane, a form of natural gas, is found in coal deposits. Besides the Raton Basin, coalbed methane is found in Colorado and Utah's San Juan Basin; Wyoming, Colorado and Utah's Piceance Basin; Wyoming and Montana's Powder River Basin; and Wyoming's Wind River and Southwestern basins.

The United States Geological Survey says that coal typically stores more gas than any other kind of rock. Besides methane, the coal deposits also contain water, which must be pumped out or produced, before the methane can be extracted. According to the USGS, in 1998, the last year statistics were available, more than ‘579 million gallons of water were produced from Las Animas County methane wells.’

That's roughly equal to 1,776 acre feet.

Unlike ground or surface water, who owns the rights to produced water is not yet settled.

Therefore, some see the produced water as a possible source for additional water. But others, like Colorado State University Extension Agent Dean Oatman and citizen groups in Las Animas and Huerfano counties, are skeptical and want as much data as possible about the possible effects of its extraction, use, and disposal.

As the demand for natural gas increases, and the push intensifies to find additional domestic sources, companies will drill more wells, resulting in the pumping of even more produced water.

There are proposals being considered to treat produced water for beneficial uses. Some individuals who live in coalbed methane production areas are concerned about the potential adverse impacts associated with the use of produced water but Pioneer spokeswoman Kimberly Mazza says some Las Animas County landowners want the water for stock ponds.

Valentine doesn't. ‘We've taken water samples off our system to get a baseline. There's leakage out of the evaporation pits.’

The mining companies are responsible for produced water's disposal. Five state agencies, including two divisions of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, oversee the industry.

‘It's quite a complicated picture,’ explains Gary Beers. He is the industrial permits unit manager for CDPHE's Water Quality Control Division. Well permits must be renewed every five years. ‘For the first three or four years, all the oil companies get is water. After that, the life of the project may be 10 to 20 years. One of the big issues is that these wells may go down six or seven thousand feet.’ Beers said the wells are deeper than a farm well and the effects they have on the water table are still unclear.

The produced water is only one of the issues that concern drilling opponents. The industry, says one state official, generally feels there is no movement between aquifers as a result of the drilling. Opponents disagree and suspect the methane may contaminate domestic wells and the drilling may lower water tables.

Pioneer pays a third party lab about $500,000 per year to conduct and test water samples, including those taken from private wells. Jacob says Pioneer responds to a couple of complaints a month, pays for the testing and works with owners to alleviate problems whether they are a result of the oil company's activities or not.

Beers explains that when coalbed methane was first developed, drilling was primarily in remote areas of the watershed. Discharge was generally into stock ponds or small streams and as long as the discharge met state water quality standards, this practice was allowed.

‘We had TDS (total dissolved solids) that cattle could handle,’ says Beers. ‘Now, as the drilling has moved down the watershed, those wells are still under permit and (companies) are discharging more, changing the streambeds.’

Pioneer's Jacob said the company doesn't discharge into the Apishipa or Purgatoire rivers, and that Pioneer ‘is quite aware of the issues.’ Instead, water that meets discharge standards is released into tributaries or dry arroyos, where it mixes with surface water or evaporates.

The chemistry of the produced water can affect not only the soil, but the plants grown in it. Produced water may be high in salts such as sodium and magnesium. The salts change the soil's traits and plants may simply not be able to absorb the water. Oatman described one Huerfano County farmer who diverted water from the Cuchara River last summer after an oil company had discharged produced water into a dry riverbed. The farmer is downstream and diverted the water for irrigation. Oatman said the man's irrigated corn was wilting and irrigation water stood in the rows. The soil and plants couldn't soak it up.

Discharges in other areas of the Raton Basin are also under watch. Oatman says one company discharges water south of Aguilar into the Purgatoire River.

‘The (produced) water is diluted enough that there is no negative impact on water quality,’ Oatman says. ‘The temperature is hot, though.’ Small farmers, Beers says, have experienced crop troubles.

‘We're looking at information from Colorado State, water quality specialists and water rights holders,’ Beers said. ‘We need additional limits to protect the water. Salinity is a major issue in every river basin in the state.’

Says Oatman: ‘And, there's no money to do testing to find out’ how extensive salinity might be in the Raton Basin.
Oatman points out that there is some discharge flowing into Trinidad Lake, but none flowing out.

‘Are inorganics going to congregate in the lake? Kill fish? Is there going to be an algae bloom?’ Oatman wonders. ‘It won't happen in a year. There's no way to guess the time line or the effect.’

‘It's not about anyone doing anything wrong. It's about minimizing the impact to the environment. It's going to be tough. It's going to take everyone, including the oil companies coming to the table.’

Over the next few months, Beers and his team will work to determine the parameters, such as chemistry and toxicity, they'll use to re-permit the wells. They'll consider whether some of the produced water can be blended to reach permissible limits for discharge. Then they'll decide what exactly to regulate before renewing permits.

‘Coalbed methane companies want to help out to a certain extent,’ Beers says, ‘but they want justification.’ Looking out for the environment is ‘part of our mission,’ says PioneerNatural Resources spokeswoman Kimberly Mazza. ‘We have no problem with state regulations, but we want consistency.’

Beers says renewing the permits comes down to three things: the regulatory framework, the amount of water discharged, and the water quality. Although Beers would like to put into place testing, analysis, and regulations that would address more questions, the permitting work is only part of his and his staff's job.

‘We'd like to do more, but we just don't have the staff. I have six or seven permit writers, and this is just part of their jobs."

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