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Grappling With the Water-Energy Nexus, Arid America Should Trim Fracking and Increase Renewables

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Punxsutauney Phil has signaled more winter ahead and it's faint comfort for those who are too familiar with evacuating for wildfire, as this year's winter is certainly not moist enough to keep that threat much at bay, and there's the chance that this summer will be an appalling scorcher.

Severe drought has clobbered more than 80 percent of America's High Plains, with the land area of four big square states, including Colorado, being engulfed in severe drought. The watershed feeding the Mississippi River, comprising about two-thirds of the Lower 48, was so parched that the river needed continual dredging in the face of ever declining water levels, and barges lightened their loads, to allow commerce to flow at slow rate.

Texas, of course, has had record-breaking drought with recent annual rainfall averages of 15 inches and 11 inches, prompting state regulators to name drought as a threat to their electrical system since thermal plants that burn coal and natural gas use water for cooling. The state's new long-term assessment (done by ERCOT, PDF) for the grid found that under drought, the western, drier parts of the state shall see no new generation from fossil fuels.

Texas is not alone in looking at the creeping conflict between water and energy, a tension dubbed the "water-energy nexus." The International Energy Agency has concluded that worldwide, fresh water is an increasingly crucial issue for energy production, projecting that such use will double by 2035 with coal and biofuels taking up about 80 percent, and oil and gas production another ten, of that enormous water usage.

And fracking is bringing up the rear as a creeping threat to clean water. Scientists with the Environmental Protection Agency have long been alarmed that the fracking boom is creating wastewater that is highly radioactive -- and more than 300 times moreso than what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows for its industrial waste. Frack-waste is also toxic with dissolved salts and metals on top of the specialized solvents injected by developers, as spelled out in papers by Pennsylvania State University and US Geological Survey (for the USGS report see here and for the PSU report see here). EPA will issue a final report on potential impacts to drinking water in 2014 (and the progress report can be seen here PDF).

Yet, there are only state by state regulations to address this hazardous waste stream, as fracking enjoys exemption from the Clean Water Act and many other major statutes.

The custom for handling 90 percent of fracking waste is to reuse it often and then stow it in injection wells that extend thousands of feet deep into the earth. That's not much assurance. ProPublica has found it to be common for injection wells to have structural failures, with up to 17,000 violated inspections (or one in six) between 2007 and 2010. A 25-year EPA expert on underground injection named Mario Salazar told ProPublica that starting in ten years, much of our ground water could be polluted and folks will start getting sick. Additionally, this past fall at the American Geophysical Union, scientists presented evidence tying a recent rise in earthquakes to the rising use of injection wells for frack-waste disposal, with one of the regions much affected being Colorado.

Okay, let's review. An under-regulated radioactive and toxic waste stream. A large population of injection wells being faulty and leaking. Earthquakes popping up around injection activity. Ongoing planetary warming intensifying drought and shrinking fresh water volumes everywhere. "What more could go wrong?" asks Jane Q. Citizen. And the obvious answer is, we are witnessing compounding threats to our water supply. And some of those threats are done by our choice.

Colorado is a pivotal example of the risk. Our state is a water source to many other states while also being affected by drought all over its territory. We're also a uranium producing state -- so as we produce gas by fracking standards that are eminently faulty, we should demand tracer studies to see where radioactive and toxic waters flow, being quick to identify the source.

We in Colorado and all over the arid, sunny, windy West should also act on Texas' discovery that wind and solar power are now cost competitive with gas for producing electricity on top of being indispensable water savers.

We in Colorado should support the campaign of WildEarth Guardians to have 6,000 additional miles of Colorado's headwater streams be designated as "outstanding waters" and assured the highest level of protection for pristine sources.

And, joyfully, we should book reservations to visit Paonia and the North Fork River Valley to celebrate that area's successful pushback against fracking lease sales that were just withdrawn by the Bureau of Land Management. Public outcry works, and "America's Tuscany" of tourism and organic food production as Paonia is beginning to be known, deserves our tourist dollars so they need never miss fracking revenue. Find the good wherever you can, and celebrate it.