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By Emily Saari

The impacts of 2013′s severe drought are apparent across the nation in forests, on farms and on once snowy peaks. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is demanding unprecedented amounts of water for hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.

Farmer in field, Creative Commons: Neil Palmer CIAT, 2012.

Fourth-generation Colorado farmer Kent Peppler told the Associated Press (AP) that he is fallowing some of his corn fields this year because he can’t afford to irrigate the land for the full growing season, in part because deep-pocketed energy companies have driven up the price of water.

“There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas. And certainly they are in a position to pay a whole lot more than we are,” Peppler said.

In a normal year, Peppler would pay anywhere from $9 to $100 for an acre-foot of water in auctions held by cities with excess supplies. But these days, energy companies are paying some cities $1,200 to $2,900 per acre-foot.

In seven states, including Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, the vast majority of the counties where fracking is occurring are also suffering from drought, according to an AP analysis of industry-compiled fracking data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official drought designations.

The persistent U.S. drought wreaked havoc on American agriculture, raising food prices and forcing farmers to make record high insurance claims on lost profits for 2012.

As farmers struggle to make ends meet, limited fresh water reserves across the country are being diverted for fracking. The fossil fuel industry has identified deposits of oil and gas within shale rock formations deep underground, formerly inaccessible. In this new, “unconventional” drilling process, water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected into horizontal wells running through the shale. The injection cracks apart the rock, releasing the oil and gas and allowing it to rise to the surface for extraction.

Fracking requires enormous quantities of water. Estimates put water usage at between 3 and 5 million gallons per fracking of a single well, and each well can be fracked several times.

According to information accessed in 2012 from industry-backed FracFocus, a national fracking chemical registry managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, states have already seen more than 65 billion gallons of water used in 26,339 fracking operations.

In 2011, in a district in west Texas, the share of water resources used by fracking well sites jumped from 25 percent in 2010 to 40 percent in the first half of 2011. In Michigan, regulators granted a permit for a drilling company, Encana Oil and Gas, to use more than 21 million gallons of water at a single well in 2012. Repeatedly siphoning off these quantities of water for fracking can be a hardship for municipalities with limited capacity to augment their local water supplies—supplies that must also provide drinking and irrigation water for residents.

Water use by the fracking industry isn’t comparable to water use by homeowners or farmers’ agricultural needs. When used for household or agricultural purposes, often the water can eventually return to the ground to replenish aquifers, rivers and streams through the hydrological cycle.

On the other hand, after water has been used for fracking, much of it remains trapped deep underground in the wells. Wastewater that bubbles up to the surface is contaminated—both with the chemicals used in fracking and with heavy metals picked up from the shale rock formation—and must be stored away from drinking water sources.

The options for storage are limited: it can be impounded in reservoirs or injected underground. If it were to be treated and returned to the environment, it would need to be trucked to an industrial treatment facility, because municipal wastewater treatment facilities are not properly equipped to remove the chemicals in fracking wastewater. In reality, a large portion of the water used in fracking is left underground and becomes effectively lost.

Renewable energy sources don’t have the same demands on water supplies. Solar and wind power use no water to capture energy and can peacefully coexist with agriculture. When it comes to generating electricity, for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours produced, solar thermal technology uses around 3,500 liters of water. In comparison, fossil fuels use 28,400 liters, more than eight times more. Solar photovoltaic and wind energy both consume less than 4 liters per kilowatt-hour of energy produced.

The nation faces a future made uncertain by the impacts of extreme heat, drought and wildfires exacerbated by climate change. Renewable energy generation not only cuts the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, it doesn’t tax water reserves, which are quickly becoming a limited and precious resource.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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