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Weld County Water To Be Tested For Effects Of Oil, Gas Drilling Over Time

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COLORADO OIL AND GAS
Pair of oil pumpers and Rocky Mountains, Colorado | Getty

Two teams of researchers will soon begin testing water throughout Weld County to determine what effects or changes, if any, come from oil and gas industry activities.

In the end, there may be no question left as to the industry's effects on water.

"I think people really are just concerned about their drinking water and, hopefully, will gain some confidence and reassurance by monitoring," said Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at CSU. "The message here is that there are several comprehensive efforts to determine whether or not we need to be worried about our drinking water."

One team, from Colorado State University, working under a grant from the Department of Natural Resources, will begin live water monitoring stations throughout the county to detect changes over time. That could start later this month.

A second team working under a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and headed up by the University of Colorado at Boulder, will start on Tuesday. That begins a five-year project that digs into the chemistry of Weld's water, and how it changes over time based on geography, geology, proximity to oil and gas wells and a host of other factors. Researches also will be looking to see if there are pathways that lead volatile chemicals into water sources.

Both efforts are separate from Weld County's voluntary water testing program in which residents concerned about their water can get free testing. About 150 tests so far have shown no contamination from Weld's testing.

Oil and gas companies, too, are doing their own water testing.

Both teams are asking for volunteers. They need residents with domestic wells, livestock watering wells and irrigation ditches to consent to the testing and/or live monitoring, some over long periods of time. Wells that show signs of problems will be monitored the most.

"Our main research question is to make an assessment of water quality and understand where fluids are coming from, both waters and gases," said Stephen Osborn, an assistant professor of geology at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, working on the NSF study.

Osborn was part of a study two years ago in Pennsylvania that found a link between drilling and methane in water wells. He said he comes to Colorado with no preconceived notions about the water.

"It's important for me to keep my objectivity," Osborn said. "As a scientist, I've tried to keep out of the politics and stick with the science. We believe more science can really resolve a lot of issues. There needs to be more publicly available data generated by science, so these issues can be resolved a bit more effectively."

The NSF grant is not all about water quality testing. Other parameters of the study will look at water quantity, recycling of water used in drilling, and natural gas infrastructure and air quality.

"We all create demand for natural gas so we have to accept some of the outcomes of its extraction," said Professor Joe Ryan, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, the lead investigator on the NSF project, in a news release. "Our goal is to provide a framework for society to evaluate the trade-offs associated with the benefits and costs of natural gas development."

CSU engineering professor Ken Carlson is heading up the CSU study, the Colorado Water Watch demonstration project, which is in addition to rules created recently by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requiring groundwater testing before and after a well is drilled.

Though all the parameters of the study are not yet finalized, it involves live monitoring of water quality to measure significant changes over time, but not necessarily as in-depth as other water studies looking for specific chemicals and isotopes.

"We aren't reinventing the wheel," Carlson said. "We're taking a pretty good system with the COGCC rule, and attaching onto that a watching component. If there is a contamination event, we're not going to tell people exactly what and how much, but we can say something has happened. Then a team from CSU initially will go out and do a more in-depth analysis."

The study is not looking into drinking water, but rather, the health of an aquifer.

"If you do samples, you're taking a snapshot in time," Carlson said. "If it's a short-lived event, you may not capture it. We want to see what the long-term trends are. Our premise is really to make people in the vicinity comfortable that someone is watching, that someone is there, ready to respond if there is a spike in the indicators."

As a scientist, I've tried to keep out of the politics and stick with the science. We believe more science can really resolve a lot of issues.

-- Stephen Osborn, assistant professor of geology at California State Polytechnic University Ponoma ___

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