NDSU research finds water needs during Oil Patch boom unprecedented

DICKINSON, N.D. - The need for water in western North Dakota's Bakken region during the oil boom was unprecedented-and research into the impacts of that water use will likely influence future oil development across the nation and the world, accor...
An oil well is pictured along the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea in Williams County, N.D., on Wednesday, April 11, 2017. Amy Dalrymple / Forum News Service

DICKINSON, N.D. - The need for water in western North Dakota's Bakken region during the oil boom was unprecedented-and research into the impacts of that water use will likely influence future oil development across the nation and the world, according to a North Dakota State University study.

"The findings on impacts to water resources in the Bakken help shed light on future regional water impact analyses for other unconventional plays in the U.S. and around the world," Zhulu Lin, an assistant professor in NDSU's Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department and the lead investigator on this research project, said in a news release.

Researchers report they drew from three datasets in addition to examining the state's water management policies. The review showed that total industrial water uses for Bakken shale oil development ranged between 0.5 percent and 10 percent of the state's total consumptive water use from 2008-2014. The percentage increases were between 3 percent and 40 percent within the Bakken oil production region; the increased population of temporary oilfield service workers also contributed to additional domestic water use.

"The increase in water demand from Bakken oil development is unprecedented and water management in the region is a complex, coupled human and natural system," Lin said in an email interview. "These adaptive management practices adopted by North Dakota State Water Commission are good practices to manage limited regional water resources to meet the acute increase in water demand in the Bakken region."

The challenge of dealing with that demand was met by the state with a plan to draw water from the Missouri River to meet the expected need.

"Everybody understood they were going to be going to the Missouri River for their water needs," said Bill Schuh, assistant director of the State Water Commission's Water Appropriations Division. "This is a water-short area. The only really ample water supply we have out there is the Missouri River and the Yellowstone."

He said there were water suppliers who were willing to go the Missouri River system and apply for permits to supply those needs.

Just as the region was reviewing potential water supplies in early 2010, an announcement from the federal government threw a spanner into the works.

"They announced they were shutting off all access to the Missouri River in the Lake Sakakawea (reservoir) area," Schuh said. "Normally what you do is apply for the permit and you get real estate access to the water. You might say, 'Well, you're going to have to move over a couple miles,' but what they said they were going to do is shut down all access for three to seven years."

This was due to a change in a long-standing policy of issuing easements to access reservoir water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided not to grant additional easements until it completed an environmental study to determine available surplus water charges, a study it estimated would take years to complete.

It meant that at the peak of the oil boom, the "main expected water supply" was rendered off-limits, Schuh said, and it created a disagreement that continues to this day.

"State and federal authority have been arguing about that for a few years," he said. "That's something that has got to be resolved."

This resulted in one of the boom's biggest issues: the struggle for the state's road infrastructure to deal with an increase of truck traffic ferrying water from depots to where it was needed.

"There was this tremendous increase in truck traffic," said Water Appropriations Division Director Jon Patch. "That resulted in a lot of adverse consequences, such as vehicle accidents and injuries and in some cases deaths."

North Dakota law protects current water users. Livestock and domestic water use are exempt from needing a water permit from the state engineer's office, but still protected by state law. The commission adopted an "adaptive management approach" to respond to the demands of water use while still following the state's laws and water management rules.

"Bottom line is that the water cannot be taken away from the existing users and given to the industry," Patch said in a follow-up email. "Our whole water management system is built around the prior appropriation doctrine that is designed to protect the rights of the prior users."

The permitting process for industrial use of groundwater is lengthy, and no temporary permits may be issued due to the difficulty in determining impacts to water in aquifers. Water permits allow water to be used for a specific type of use, such as irrigation or industrial use. By law, water authorized to an existing use was not allowed to be repurposed for another use.

All of this was helped by a preponderance of rain during the bulk of the oil production season.

"During the oil boom (2008-2014), western North Dakota received more than 20 percent more precipitation than normal years," Lin said.

The commission's adaptive practices have always been used with a goal of putting the state's waters to beneficial use while carefully monitoring them, said Patch, noting that state officials are looking ahead to what is to come: new fracking practices that use even more water.

"Everyone cares about water. We want to make sure we're doing the right thing for all of the stakeholders and all of the citizens of North Dakota," he said. "With a pickup in the industry and an increase in activity ... it's going to mean more oil wells and more fracking using even more water than before."

Coupled with drought-like conditions, Patch said, the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, and Lake Sakakawea "are going to be important to meeting the demands."