Madison aquifer too valuable to pollute by Bob LeResche, January 24, 2016, Casper Star Tribune
“Water is Wyoming’s most important natural resource,” wrote Gov. Matt Mead in Leading the Charge: Wyoming Water Strategy. That publication says Wyoming has spent $1.2 billion on water development projects since the Wyoming Water Development Commission was formed in 1975.
The state of Wyoming has indeed gone to great lengths to develop our water resources and ensure our communities have sufficient clean water. Some examples are:
- the 72-mile Shoshone Municipal Pipeline, delivering surface water to Cody, Frannie and Lovell in the Big Horn Basin;
- the 90-mile Bighorn Regional Supply Pipeline, delivering deep Madison aquifer well water to Greybull and Kirby in the Bighorn Basin;
- the 53-mile Gillette Madison Pipeline, delivering water to Gillette from deep Madison aquifer Formation wells near the South Dakota border;
- the 30-mile water pipeline to Rawlins, from North Park Formation springs and Nugget Formation wells; and
- the 80-mile Cheyenne pipeline, moving surface water across the Laramie Basin to the capitol city.
Yet, even with these investments, and with his oft-repeated claims to value clean water so highly, our governor, as Chair of the Oil and Gas Commission, appears poised to vote in favor of a proposal to allow an out-of-state oil and gas company to pollute one of Wyoming’s most important aquifers — the Madison.
Aethon Energy recently purchased Encana’s holdings in the Moneta Divide oil and gas field east of Shoshoni in the Wind River Basin. They are proposing to inject 365 million barrels of drilling and fracking waste and salty produced brine deep into the Madison aquifer. Approval of this disposal well by the Oil and Gas Commission would permit not only disposal of millions of barrels of oil and gas wastewater into the Madison formation, but also remove this portion of the aquifer from Safe Drinking Water Act protections forever, by granting an “aquifer exemption.” This could throw open the door to many more waste injection wells in the Madison formation and allow hundreds of millions of barrels more of drilling, fracking and produced waste to enter a potential water supply.
The two geologists on the Oil and Gas Commission, Commissioners Drean and Doelger, are skeptical of this proposal and oppose the injection well and the aquifer exemption. They have voted against it in the past and indicate they will vote against it again when it comes up for another vote on Feb. 9. They — along with other hydrologists and independent scientists — do not believe waste injected into this formation will stay confined within the exempted area or at the injected depth and are concerned that injected oil and gas waste will rise and spread to shallower locations further from the injection well.
On the other hand, Mead and State Lands Director Hill have indicated they believe Atheon’s claim that the Madison aquifer in this area is too deep and remote to ever be used for other purposes. Meanwhile, Commissioner Fitzsimmons, a petroleum engineer, has not indicated how he will vote. This means the vote will be close, and Fitzsimmons could be the tiebreaker.
While there may be no immediate economic demand to access this deep clean groundwater today, it is highly likely that this aquifer will be critical to satisfying water demands in the future. Given the hundreds of millions of public dollars we’ve already invested getting water to Wyoming communities, protecting the Madison aquifer for future use is clearly a prudent investment.
… The Madison aquifer in the Wind and Bighorn River Basins is identified by the WWDC as the “highest yielding aquifer in the planning area with excellent water qualities.” A Wyoming Geological Survey report notes that the Madison aquifer in this area has “significant potential for developing high yields” for future water use. In fact, the Wyoming Whiskey distillery at Kirby (ironically owned by the Mead family) unblushingly brags on the fact that “Your whiskey is as good as your water. And our water is unrivaled. A mile below us lays the Madison Formation, which includes a massive limestone aquifer from where we source our water. Access to this pure water resource is an important reason why our distillery is where it is.”
We hope Mead and the other commissioners follow the wisdom of the U.S. Geological Survey’s famed chief hydrologist Luna Leopold, who said, “Water is the most critical resource issue of our lifetime and our children’s lifetime. The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.” [Emphasis added]
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