Oil & Gas wells may provide water source
PUEBLO To those who operate oil and gas wells, water is a waste product.A few entrepreneurs hope to change that, creating a new industry around so-called produced water. While the water would fulfill only a minuscule fraction of the state’s future water needs, such supplies could be important in some areas.Oil wells typically produce more water as they age, making recovery of oil more difficult. They play out as stripper wells, producing far more water than crude. In some cases, the produced water can be injected into the wells to force more oil to the surface. If the water quality is good enough, a well operator might opt to send the water down the nearest stream.Gas wells, including the methane coal beds in Las Animas and Huerfano counties, typically produce less water than oil wells, but the amount of water can be significant — millions of gallons per day for the thousands of wells in the area.In Wellington, a small community nine miles north of Fort Collins, a farmer wants to use produced water to irrigate fields and sell surface flows to cities.Meanwhile, a couple of retired businessmen living in Huerfano County are looking into forming a small company to provide water for cisterns.”Well, it’s going slow,” said Richard Seaworth, managing partner of Wellington Water Works. “For a state that’s short of water, people don’t seem to need a lot. But if you do need it, it’s hard to buy.”Seaworth looks at exchanging water from old oil wells for surface ag water as a way to benefit from the thirst and relatively large pocketbooks of nearby cities without drying up the farm that has been in his family more than 60 years.Wells on his land are part of a 5,000-acre unit that sits atop a groundwater reservoir estimated to contain 161,000 acre-feet of water.Seaworth and Brad Pomeroy, president of Wellington Operating Co., began meeting with water purification experts in 2004. Pilot test programs showed 165 acre-feet of water of sufficient quality for municipal use annually could be produced from the Wellington field.A state permit for using the produced water for industrial, municipal, irrigation, commercial and augmentation was granted in late 2004. Seaworth said he is still in water court to exchange his surface rights.”It takes a special spot to make this work. I think people will buy it, once they know they’ll be able to count on it,” Seaworth said. “But it’s going to take time. I just don’t want to see my fields dry up, although looking back, that might have been easier.”Meanwhile, two retired businessmen living near La Veta are using their own experience from the drought of 2002 to investigate creating a nonprofit business centered on produced water.Len Hearns and Ernie Haynes want to use water from a nearby gas well to supply cisterns in rural Huerfano County. The project is still in its embryonic stage, as a market feasibility study has not been completed, Hearns said.”What we’re talking about is providing drinking water to rural Huerfano County,” Hearns said.The business would be small-scale — about 25,000 gallons a day, or 28 acre-feet per year.Hearns actually began using the water himself in 2001. It was the “waste product” of two wells above his property and discharged into the Cucharas River watershed. When the 2002 drought hit, Walsenburg stopped extraterritorial services, cutting out those in the county who have to haul water.”It’s excellent drinking water,” Hearns said.There are still studies and legal issues to be resolved in the project, said Jim Conley, Huerfano County extension agent, who has worked with the project partners. The state is helping with a geologic study and helping set up the corporate structure of the fledgling business.”We’re still in the early stages,” Conley said.Water Division 2 Engineer Steve Witte said using produced water presents several challenging issues.Right now, much of the water is released directly into streams. At a workshop in Trinidad last year, a Pioneer Natural Resources spokesman said about half of the 2.4 million gallons daily of produced water from the company’s wells is released into state waters.The rest is kept in holding ponds, where it either evaporates or is pumped back into the ground.Witte said the water flowing into streams benefits water rights, mostly held by irrigators.”If it’s of good enough quality, it’s available for appropriation,” Witte said.To claim it at the source, the first step would be to prove it’s not tributary — in other words, part of the natural flow of the nearby streams. Such well fields are recognized in Colorado water law.The produced water in Las Animas and Huerfano counties usually is associated with coal seams 700 to 4,000 feet deep, so it may fulfill the requirements of nontributary water.But that has yet to be tested in water court.Las Animas County has filed a claim on produced waters that has not yet been decided, Witte said.Producers in Huerfano County unsuccessfully tried to claim water already impounded, but their claim was dismissed.If the water is found to be tributary, it could still be used, but an augmentation plan would be needed, Witte said.
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