Water Wars 2001

Bruce Florquist
Director of Public Works
City of Rawlins, Wyoming

Water in the west has always been a contentious issue. The struggle between the haves and have-nots has been the basis for many books and movies. The Milagro Beanfield War has been a must read for students of western water law for years. More recently, Clive Cussler's Blue Gold approaches the question in an unlikely techno-action thriller.

Today, there is a struggle taking place in the water business, but it is more between the haves (and don't know what to do with it) and the "don't want you to haves." This struggle revolves around the water produced at depth from coal bed methane (CBM) development.

Geologists, drillers, engineers, and miners have known for years that methane is associated with coal beds. That is why miners used to carry canaries into mines. In recent years, the demands and prices for energy have created a need to develop some of this previously untapped energy source. Large portions of the west are underlain by significant quantities of coal buried beyond the depth of economic development. For the last several years, there has been increased drilling and development for CBM. The rub comes in with the amount of water that is typically associated with this resource. And, to get the gas to flow freely, the water must be "unloaded" to allow the gas to flow.

In a recent interview with Ken Morr of Dudley and Associates-a company that is trying to develop an eleven-well field near Seminoe Reservoir about 25-miles northeast of Rawlins, Wyoming-Morr tells of wells producing 800 barrels (bbls) of water per day (about 33,000 gallons per day). The wells are developed into coal beds of the Mesa Verde formation at depths of 5500 to 6000 feet. The water in the initial test well has been "unloaded" to a depth of 2300 feet. That still leaves about 4000 feet of water column that must be pumped before serious development and testing can occur. Even when the water is lowered to this depth, it will have to be continually pumped to keep the gas flowing (presuming gas is there to develop). This produced water will flow to Seminoe Reservoir on the North Platte River.

This field is quite small by CBM standards. Fields in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana are much larger. Large fields are planned in other portions of the west. Regardless of the size of the fields, significant quantities of water are produced. In the relatively arid west, one would think that the additional water would be a boon. Many people feel differently, however. Some are concerned about the problems caused by the relatively continuous release of waters. There is concern about diminution of water quality. There is also concern about diminishing water supplies from wells that are shallower and stratigraphically higher than the coal beds. One producer admitted that his water has about 1700 ppm total dissolved solids, is a little high in iron, and creates a high sodium absorption ratio. He felt that this water was "pretty good" quality.

The development and production of this water is of concern to various environmental groups. Although most in these environmental groups recognize the need for development of energy sources to power our vehicles and heat our homes, they caution that the energy companies should do a better job of handling the water and mitigating other problems. For instance, some are concerned about the migration of methane away from the wells, which has purportedly caused problems for structures, wells, and agriculture in southwestern Colorado and in California.

From a water development and use standpoint, there are two primary issues. First, in most cases, the ranchers or farmers own the surface rights but, in many cases, they do not own the mineral rights. Under law, the owner of the mineral rights can use any appropriate means to develop those rights. This can include degradation of surface water supplies, diminishing long established aquifers, and associated surface disturbances including roads and pipelines that many claim will decrease their property values.

The problem may not be clear until one looks at the magnitude of some of the developments. For instance, the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana currently has over 1000 CBM wells with another 10,000 or more pending permits. Already, over 20,000 acre-feet of water have been pumped. This water is generally dumped into an existing drainage or stored in ponds created for the excess water. Although some environmental groups urge the use of re-injection of the water, most CBM developers argue that it is not economically feasible. And, it may not help. History has shown that many times when an aquifer is depleted its water-bearing capability is destroyed and cannot be restored.

The Powder River Basin Resources Council (http://www.powderriverbasin.org) believes that the cost to the state of Wyoming alone will be staggering. Wyoming's state finances are closely tied to mineral severance taxes, and according to the Powder River Basin Resources Council (PRBRC) the minerals severance taxes only pay for less than 15 percent of the water replacement cost. The great irony is that most water development projects in the state are funded through this minerals severance tax. There is genuine concern in some areas that depletion of water from coal beds could eventually lower water tables to the point that municipal and other wells will be jeopardized.

The issue became even more muddled recently when the Wyoming Outdoor Council (WOC) and the PRBRC filed objections to 23 discharge permits issued by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WYDEQ). These objections claim that WTDEQ failed to comply with provisions of the Clean Water Act including impacts to soils, wildlife and fisheries because of high salinity, failure to use best management practices, and high concentrations of barium in the discharged waters. This created a rift within state government because the State Oil and Gas Commission claims that they will continue to issue drilling permits while WYDEQ is being forced to reconsider issuing discharge permits.

Notwithstanding all of the local issues, there are interstate compacts on water use involved. There is concern that development of CBM in the Little Snake River Valley of south-central Wyoming may compromise the water quality in the Colorado River Drainage-a drainage that is known for its salinity problems now. In addition, the Platte River Agreement between the states of Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming with participation by the USEPA, the US Corps of Engineers, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service as it relates to endangered species will certainly come into play. Some operators have already acknowledged that they come under the purview of this agreement and must take certain steps to mitigate the problems.

That there are huge gaps in the direction that various state and federal agencies are going, and that even larger gaps exist between the energy development companies and environmental groups, is an understatement. No resolution to the problem is even suggested here. At this time, it is mainly a regional problem, but could become a national problem, as there are similar coal beds available, and in fact being developed in other parts of the country.


  • Brodie Farquhar, Casper Star-Tribune, November 1, 2000, "State to hear permit foes"
  • Barbara Parsons, Rawlins Daily Times, November 29, 2000, Guest Editorial
  • Barbara Parsons, Board Member, Wyoming Outdoor Council, personal communication
  • Ken Morr, Dudley and Associates, personal communication
  • David Hogle, USEPA Region 8, personal communication
  • Powder River Basin Resource Council (www.powdereriverbasin.org)
  • Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission (www.wogcc.state.wy.us)
For more information, contact Bruce Florquist at 307-328-4599 or at brucef@trib.com.