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Oil Shale's Insatiable Demand for Water Will Impact Western Way of Life

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For generations my family has ranched in northwest Colorado, raising cattle and producing crops. Agriculture on West Slope, from peaches to beef, has fed countless Coloradans and Americans over the years and served to support our way of life here.

Our lives would of course be much different if not for one critical resource: clean, plentiful water.

It has provided for our livelihood and our way of life. According to a report from the Government Accountability Office last month‚ that resource could now be threatened by oil shale development. According to the report, oil shale development could have "significant impacts" on the quality and quantity of water resources.

On the heels of the GAO report, the Colorado Water Commission this month reported that "Colorado faces a shortage of water." Furthermore, the Interbasin Compact Committee, formed in 2005 to help address water issues, delivered a report that also highlighted future water shortages in the state.

From population growth, roads and production facilities, to withdrawing water from streams and aquifers, and the potential for discharges that could contaminate our water supply, the dangers to our water are very real.

Natural gas development just in Garfield County and Rio Blanco counties, where most oil shale development would likely occur, has already reported several hundred spills in the county since 2005, according to a Colorado state database, as reported in the Denver Post. Those spills have not only impacted local water but those who depend on it.

Long-time residents of the Western Slope have memories of the last oil shale boom because it took years for the economies of our communities to recover from the day it all left.

In addition to making land available to research oil shale development, we need to develop the technology and understand the impacts to the communities and environment before large-scale, commercial leasing should take place.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a rancher himself, knows the risks to water and the economy in the West. His more cautious approach to leasing taxpayer land for oil and gas development will help ensure that we maintain balance with energy development in the West.

The experts and officials the GAO interviewed have said there is insufficient data to understand baseline conditions of water resources in the oil shale regions of Colorado and Utah and that we know very little about how our underground aquifers work. Thus we know very little about how oil shale contamination would affect our water. The agency also found that government officials seldom coordinate water-related oil shale research among themselves or with state agencies that regulate water.

Now that the state agency that regulates water is telling us to expect a shortage, we should be even more concerned.

While we know little about the impacts of oil shale development on water, we do have some clues, based on other oil and gas development, about what to expect. The GAO reported that the oil shale industry might need more water per year than is used by the Denver metro area.

Simply put, there are still many important questions that remain unanswered regarding how oil shale development might impact our water supply here on the West Slope. Ongoing gas and oil drilling is already consuming huge amounts of our water - and posing a risk of contamination.

My ranch and the livelihoods of countless ranchers, farmers and rural communities here are dependent on these questions being fully answered and understood as we consider additional development in the West. One thing is clear: we cannot survive without a clean water supply.