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Study: Water use in ND Oil Patch increased almost 20-fold in seven years

Oil Derrick

FARGO—Water use for oil production in the Bakken oilfields increased almost 20-fold from 2008 to 2014, with water consumption climbing from 550 million gallons to 10,200 million gallons per year, according to North Dakota State University researchers.

Total annual industrial water use for Bakken oil production during the seven-year period ranged from 0.5 percent to 10 percent of the state's total water consumption, the researchers found.

The rate of increase was most pronounced in the heart of the Bakken formation in western North Dakota, including the counties of Dunn, McKenzie, Mountrail and Williams, where water consumption rose within a range of 3 percent to 40 percent.

Freshwater sources for Bakken development were split equally between groundwater and surface water, on average. From 2012 to 2014, however, more surface water than groundwater was used.

"The analysis of the current water management strategies and policies adopted in western North Dakota will assist and inform other policymakers and water practitioners to develop adaptive management strategies and policies to address increased industrial and community water demands associated with unconventional oil and gas development in their regions," said Zhulu Lin, an assistant professor in NDSU's Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department and the lead investigator on the research project.

Of the nine streams and 15 shallow aquifers under study, three shallow aquifers—Charbonneau, Tobacco Garden Creek and Killdeer—In McKenzie and Dunn Counties appear to have been affected by Bakken shale oil development. In those cases, average groundwater levels decreased.

The remaining 12 shallow aquifers and all nine small- to medium-sized streams had higher groundwater levels or increased average annual seven-day low flows, largely because the region received unusually high precipitation during the 2008-14 study period, and through adaptive management, the researchers found.

For example, irrigation permit holders were allowed to transfer the water temporarily from irrigation, mainly from groundwater, to industrial water uses, such as hydraulic fracturing for the oil industry, and by issuing temporary water permits, mainly for surface water.

"Due to restrictive regulations, not much water from the deep regional aquifers such as the Fox Hills-Hell Creek Aquifer was used for hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken," Lin said. "This has prevented the deep regional aquifers from being affected by the Bakken shale oil development."

The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, will be outlined in an article appearing in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association in February. The research team also included Siew Lim, an associate professor in NDSU's Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department; Tong Lin, a research assistant in NDSU's Environmental and Conservation Sciences Program; as well as Michael Hove and William Schuh of the North Dakota State Water Commission.

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