Fracking Near Moab's Water Supply

Sep 13, 2012

The Bureau of Land Management is preparing for an auction of new oil and gas leases on 80,000 acres of BLM land in Southeast Utah. The leases have sparked concern about Moab’s sole source of drinking water.

Kiley Miller lives in a rural area south of Moab. When she looked at the BLM map of proposed leases, she realized that one of the parcels was right next door.

"My first thought was, well, if they’re going to be drilling for oil and gas up there, then our potential well could become contaminated, and then where would we be? And then I started thinking, well, if it’s on top of my watershed, then maybe it’s on top of Moab’s watershed."

Miller discovered that she could soon be living next to a 3,600-acre oil and gas field, which will border the Glen Canyon Aquifer, Moab’s water source.

"Even more so this year I’ve been thinking about water because we haven’t been getting much and we’re in a drought, and if we contaminate our water, how are we going to survive? I understand that people are going to say it creates jobs and it’s good for the economy, but at the same time, Moab’s economy is tourism."

On that point, Chris Baird, Grand County Council member, is in agreement.

"80% of Grand County’s economy really depends on recreation and tourism, and that particular industry can be impacted by oil, gas and mining if we’re  not careful."

Baird has numerous concerns about the leases, and says the county lacks the information it needs to protect its water source. A $2 million dollar study of the aquifer was approved by Congress, but never appropriated. And Moab doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with the BLM on issues like protection of scenery, night skies, clean air, wildlife, archeology and peace and quiet.

"In the past couple of years we have seen, especially with the infamous 77 leases around Arches and Canyonlands, that there are some parcels, or have been some parcels, in the BLM’s resource management plan which haven’t been quite up to par with their own criteria."

Rock Smith heads up the BLM’s Moab Field Office, which is doing an Environmental Analysis of the new leases, due to come out in late September:

"Leasing is a very preliminary thing, and no one knows if it will even be developed in the end. I think in this area about ten percent of leases actually get developed. Leasing just pretty much guarantees that somewhere on that lease the company will be able to drill one well. If it is leased and they decide to develop them, they’ll come back with a notice of stake and then we’ll actually see where they plan to put a well."

The proposed new leases are scattered throughout Grand and San Juan counties, including areas above La Sal, in Lisbon Valley, on the Gateway Road, and numerous parcels surrounding Monticello. Smith says the BLM is ready and able to identify potential impacts and mitigate them.

"If fracking were to occur it would be somewhere down the line, if the lease goes to development. If they drill a well and decide that fracking would help produce that well, then that’s where that would occur."

More than 3000 people have already signed an online petition opposing the leases, and environmental groups, including the Canyonlands Watershed Council, are preparing to comment. Laurel Hagan is the Council’s executive director.

"Right now we have pristine water that’s practically free, because it flows from pretty abundant wells and springs. And it flows downhill, we don’t have to pressurize it, all that kind of stuff. And if that water source is contaminated there’s no way to clean it up, and then we’d have to start pulling water from the Colorado River, which is extremely expensive because it’s not clean water and we have to pump it uphill."

Hagan allows that it may take a few different worst-case scenarios to threaten the water supply, but if it happened, there would be little warning, and it would be catastrophic.

"We have a very fractured aquifer here, and that’s true of a lot of places that have this kind of sandstone. And so if one of these wells happens to hit one of the cracks, then it could make its way into active municipal wells in a couple of years."

After a 30-day public comment period, the Southeast Utah lease auction is scheduled for mid-February.