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Tap Water For Oilfield Drilling Becomes An Issue In Moab

Due to citizen complaints, Heila Ershadi, a member of the Moab City Council, became aware that Moab’s two public water systems have been selling millions of gallons of culinary water to operators of oilfield tanker trucks.  

“Someone noticed the number of large trucks that were traveling down 500 West from a city operated station where there’s a filling station, and lots of trucks driving through this residential area. The concerns I have heard residents raise is that it’s too many trucks and that they drive quickly and recklessly down residential roads,”Ershadi said.

Moab has seen a drilling boom in the last two years, and many more wells are planned. The water trucks, along with tandem dump trucks full of drilling sand, are also creating dramatic new traffic on local highways that access Canyonlands. Moab is just one of scores of towns across the West where city water is being sold for industrial uses, including drilling and fracking, and cities sometimes even drill new wells to supply the water. The driller of nine active oil and gas wells near Island in the Sky says the wells are not being fracked, saving water. But Ershadi said she fears that could change sooner than the city has imagined.

“If Moab grows the way we are planning, and if oil and gas developments grow, it does look like there could be a conflict in the future, where there wouldn’t be enough water for local businesses,” she said. “There’s been talk of putting a cap on the amount that is sold to oil and gas or any business that is not operating in Moab. I would like to see the cap set at no water, no culinary water for oil and gas development.”

That opinion is shared by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the Sierra Club, and many other towns are considering bans. In New York, one local village persuaded the courts to annul a bulk contract with an oilfield water supplier. In Aurora, Colorado, some citizens want to do the same. While 90 percent of household water ends up back in the river, oilfield water, after use, has to be hauled away. Ershadi doesn’t like exporting Moab water from the system.

“It’s not in our general plan to sell water that’s going to be taken away from the area. Also, it’s culinary water. We are going into a time where we need to be increasingly protective of our water supplies. We’re forecasted to have increasingly dry conditions from here on out. We very much need a drought management plan. There’s not anything currently saying if we are in a time of very high water stress, what will get cut first,” Ershadi said.

A widely quoted new study states that since 2011 three-quarters of new oil and gas wells in the U.S. have been in areas where water is already scarce, and small, rural counties are being affected the most.

Donna Metzler is Moab’s City Manager. Metzler says the amount of water the town sells to drillers is “not a big hit on the system,” and the city is asking the water truckers to change their route to avoid disturbing neighborhoods.

“As far as trucking companies that purchase water from the city, we have, I’ll say a dozen. I don’t know exactly where they take the water. I don’t know exactly what they’re using it for. It’s a lot for a trucking company, driving into our city shop and purchasing water, but it’s not a lot of water in the scheme of things. You would expect a small motel to use about that much water,” Metzler said.

Utah doesn’t keep track of how much water is used for oil and gas drilling, but some states are starting to, including Texas and Nebraska. Meanwhile, Metzler says Moab is in contact with local drillers about their future plans, and hoping for more cooperation with federal agencies.

“We want to be in better contact with, for example, the BLM. So when they have an environmental assessment done for a project, and it calls for using city water, we want to be notified, so that we can communicate with these companies and determine if that’s something we can actually do,” she said.
Some opponents argue that municipal water is a relative bargain for drillers, who are getting more sloppy with water use, and not trying hard to find “brackish” water sources. In Moab, Metzler says the notion of a cap on water sales is one option that will be looked at.

“The rate that we charge to trucking companies is considerably higher than what we charge on a per gallon basis for a residential user,” Metzler said. “But I will say that City of Moab water rates, across the board, are quite low. So as we get more information, and if we see that there are plans to use more city water, I think we’ll need to give serious consideration to that. What would be a cap?”

Nearby in Blanding, residents face a similar issue. In the midst of drought and dire uncertainty over the city’s deep wells, the city has been supplying culinary water to the White Mesa Uranium mill. Officials there say that practice might have to end soon.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."