Dawn of the Dead Watershed
As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.
There's a lot of water on the planet we inhabit - an estimated 326 million trillion gallons or 1,260,000,000,000,000,000,000 liters.
That makes it hard to believe that there are somewhere between 780 million to one billion people without basic and reliable water supplies and that more than two billion people lack the requirements for basic sanitation.
Harder still to believe are reports water is going to get much dearer in our near term future yet global demand for fresh water may outstrip supply by as much as 40 per cent in 20 years if current fresh-water consumption trends continue.
Our planet is 70 percent covered in ocean, ninety-eight percent of the world's water is in the oceans - which makes it unfit for drinking or irrigation because of salt.
Just two percent of the world's water is fresh, but the vast majority of our fresh water, 1.6 percent, is in its frozen state and locked up in the polar ice caps and glaciers.
Our available freshwater (.396 percent of total supply) is found underground in aquifers and wells (0.36 percent) and the rest of our readily available fresh water, 0.036 percent, is found in lakes and rivers.
Freshwater aquifers are one of the most important natural resources in the world today. These underground reservoirs are essential to life on this planet. They sustain streams, wetlands, and ecosystems and they resist land subsidence and salt water intrusion into our fresh water supplies.
Many people think of aquifers as underground lakes but that's not the case - the water is held between rock particles. Water infiltrates into the soil through pores and cracks until it reaches what is called the zone of saturation - all of the spaces between the rocks are filled with water, not air.
This zone of saturation occurs because water infiltrating the soil reaches an impermeable layer of rocks it can't soak through.
Water held in aquifers is known as groundwater. The water table is located at the top of the zone of saturation.
Groundwater represents about 30 percent of the available fresh water on the planet - surface water accounts for less than one percent. The rest is locked up in glaciers or the polar ice caps.
Almost all of the planet's liquid fresh water is stored in aquifers. Some of the largest cities in the developing world - Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima, and Mexico City - depend on aquifers for almost all their water.
Most rural areas pump groundwater from wells drilled into an aquifer.
There are two types of aquifers: replenishable (a permeable layer of rock above the water table and an impermeable one beneath it) and non-replenishable (also known as fossil aquifers, no recharge) aquifers. Most of the aquifers in India and the shallow aquifer under the North China Plain are replenishable. When these are depleted, the maximum rate of pumping is automatically reduced to the rate of recharge or refill.
For fossil aquifers - such as the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, or the Saudi aquifer - depletion brings pumping to an end.
In North America the major concern is over water levels in the Ogallala aquifer under the U.S. Great Plains - the world's bread basket. The Ogallala is the world's largest known aquifer having an approximate area of 450,600 square kilometers and stretches from southern South Dakota through parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and northern Texas.
The Ogallala Aquifer was formed roughly 10 million years ago when water flowed onto the plains from retreating glaciers and streams of the Rocky Mountains. The Ogallala is no longer being recharged by the Rockies and precipitation in the region is only 30-60 cm per year.
When groundwater is depleted the effects (besides lessening of supply or no more water) can be drastic. Land subsidence happens when porous formations that once held water collapse resulting in the surface layer settling. Water won't compress, but when the water is sucked out of an aquifer air fills the void between the rocks where the water use to be. Air compresses and the ground sinks or compacts - the aquifer will never hold the same amount of water again.
One study shows that from 1986 to 1992 some parts of the Mexico City Aquifer's water levels dropped 6 to 10 meters. Areas of Mexico City, as a consequence, have fallen as much as 8.5 meters. The subsidence (ground compaction) is also damaging the sewer system, potentially leading to untreated sewage mixing with fresh water in the aquifer.
In March of 2009, Enoch City in Iron County, Cedar Valley Utah, contacted the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) about what they believed to be a fault running through one of their new subdivisions. It was determined by the UGS that it was a fissure caused by the groundwater level dropping as much as 114 feet since 1939 - the cause was determined to be due to pumping more groundwater than is recharged (refilled).
Another effect of over pumping is saltwater intrusion. If too much groundwater is pumped out from coastal aquifers saltwater may flow into them causing contamination of the aquifer. Many coastal aquifers - the Biscayne Aquifer near Miami and the New Jersey Coastal Plain aquifer for example - have problems with saltwater intrusion.
Streams, rivers and lakes are almost always closely connected with an aquifer. The depletion of aquifers doesn't allow these surface waters to be recharged - lowering water levels in aquifers is being reflected in reduced amounts of water flowing at the surface.
This is happening along the Atlantic Coastal Plain, groundwater depletion is also responsible for the Yellow River in China not reaching the ocean for months at a time, the failure of the Colorado River in the U.S. and the Indus River in Pakistan failing to reach the ocean every day.
The world's population is growing by roughly 80 million people each year and freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years. Demand for freshwater is increasing by 64 billion cubic meters a year (1 cubic meter = 1,000 liters). The world's seven billion people are using almost 60 percent of all accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. By 2050 the United Nations estimates we will have upwards of 10 billion people on this planet.
"When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water." - Ben Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac 1733
About 20 percent of all cropland, or 277 million hectares, is under irrigation and irrigation multiplies yields of most crops by 2 to 5 times - irrigated agriculture currently contributes to 40 percent of the world's food production.
The alarm bells are ringing.
Yet we continue to let happen widespread surface and groundwater contamination that makes valuable water supplies unfit for other uses.
One of the most injurious uses of our fresh water supply is Fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it's more commonly referred to, is used to stimulate the production of oil and gas from unconventional oil and gas deposits - shales, coalbeds, and tight sands. These types of deposits need to be stimulated because they have a lower permeability than conventional reservoirs and require the additional stimulation for production.
As of 2012, 2.5 million hydraulic fracturing jobs have been performed on oil and gas wells worldwide, more than one million of them in the United States - Wikipedia.
Hydraulic fracturing involves drilling a well then injecting it with a slurry of water, chemical additives and proppants. Wells are drilled and lined with a steel pipe that's cemented into place. A perforating gun is used to shoot small holes through the steel and cement into the shale. The highly pressurized fluid and proppant mixture injected into the well escapes and create cracks and fractures in the surrounding shale layers and that stimulates the flow of natural gas or oil. The proppants (grains of sand, ceramic beads, or sintered bauxite) prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped and the pressure of the fluid is removed.
Proponents of hydraulic fracturing argue that fracking:
Creates cheap domestic energy
Replaces dirty coal-fired power plants
Makes it easier to meet federal air and water quality standards
Reduces our dependence on foreign supplied oil
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing have some serious concerns regarding:
Contamination of the environment
Threats to human health
False promises of long-term economic benefits
Over the last several years there's been a dramatic rise in the use of hydraulic fracturing. As use of this technology has increased worries are growing about fracking's effect on our fresh water supply, it's easy to see why:
Fracking just one well can use two to eight million gallons of water with the major components being water (90%), sand or proppants (8-9.5%), and chemicals (0.5-2%). One four million gallon fracturing operation would use from 80 to 330 tons of chemicals and each well will be fracked numerous times. Many of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, developmental defects, hormone disruption, and other conditions
Cracked wells and rock movement frequently leak fracking fluid and gases into nearby groundwater supplies. Fracturing fluid leakoff (loss of fracturing fluid from the fracture channel into the surrounding permeable rock) can exceed 70% of injected volume
Methane concentrations are 17x higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells. Hydraulic fracturing increases the permeability of shale beds, creating new flow paths and enhancing natural flow paths for gas leakage into aquifers
The fracturing fluids job is to create the fractures, hold them open, place the proppants, and then lose viscosity to flow back up the wellbore. It has to do all that without damaging the reservoir.
The fracturing fluid will vary in composition depending on the type of fracturing used, the conditions of the specific well being fractured, and the water characteristics. Fracturing fluid additives include: proppants, acids, gelling agents to thicken the fracturing fluid, gel breakers which allow fracturing fluid and gas to flow easily back to surface, bactericides, biocides, clay stabilizers, corrosion inhibitors, crosslinkers which help maintain viscosity of fracturing fluid, friction reducers, iron controls, scale inhibitors, and surfactants.
A typical fracture treatment uses up to 12 additive chemicals to the fracturing fluid. The most often used chemical additives would include one or more of the following:
Hydrochloric acid helps dissolve minerals and initiate cracks in the rock and is the single largest liquid component used in a fracturing fluid aside from water.
Acetic acid is used in the pre-fracturing stage for cleaning the perforations and initiating fissures in the near-wellbore rock.
Sodium chloride (salt) delays breakdown of the gel polymer chains.
Polyacrylamide and other friction reducers minimize the friction between fluid and pipe.
Ethylene glycol prevents formation of scale deposits in the pipe.
Borate salts are used for maintaining fluid viscosity.
Tetramethyl ammonium chloride prevents clays from swelling and shifting
Sodium and potassium carbonates are used for maintaining effectiveness of the crosslinkers.
Glutaraldehyde is used as a disinfectant of the water (bacteria elimination).
Guar gum and other water-soluble gelling agents increases the viscosity of the fracturing fluid to more efficiently deliver the proppant into the formation.
Formic acid and acetaldehyde are used for corrosion prevention.
Isopropanol increases the viscosity of the fracture fluid.
Methanol is a winterizing agent and product stabilizer
Each well uses between two and eight million gallons of locally-sourced freshwater which will be permanently contaminated by toxic chemicals contained in the fracking fluid, in ground contaminants and the mixing of the two to create new toxic substances.
Hydraulic fracturing flowback not only contains chemicals added during well stimulation, but the fluid that flows out of the well as the gas is produced will contain a variety of toxic and carcinogenic substances, many of which were not present in the fracturing additives. This is because chemicals and minerals are present in the shale zone formation water and they may be released during the hydraulic fracturing process. This release results in additional contaminates formed in the wastewater, ie bronopol is a biocide with low human toxicity that can release nitrite, which in alkaline medium reacts with secondary amines to produce the potent nitrosamine carcinogens.
The recovered waste fluid - water contaminated with chemicals and anything that water has come in contact with, meaning heavy metals and minerals - is often left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful volatile organic compounds (VOC) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.
Some of the recovered waste water is injected deep underground in oil and gas waste wells or even in saline aquifers, there are serious concerns about the ability of these caverns and aquifers to handle the increased pressure and in the U.S., evidence is showing that deep-well injecting is linked to the occurrence of earthquakes.
According to the industry's own numbers just 60-70% of the fracturing fluid is recovered, the remaining 30 to 40% of the toxic fluid stays in the ground and is not biodegradable.
No one is entirely sure what happens to the water that is not recovered from the fracking process but since the water returned to the surface contains radium and bromides we can be sure the lost water does as well.
"When bromide in the wastewater mixes with chlorine (often used at drinking water treatment plants), it produces trihalomethanes, chemicals that cause cancer and increase the risk of reproductive or developmental health problems."
The use of the large number of oxidants, particularly hydrogen peroxide, in the presence of bromide can produce compounds that are potentially carcinogenic.
Radium is a radioactive metal that can cause diseases like leukemia.
Benzene, toluene, xylenes, ethyl benzene, and a variety of other aromatic compounds are routinely used. Of these, benzene carries the greatest toxicity, due to its well-known carcinogenicity. These five compounds will tend to remain in water, and only be weakly absorbed.
From the Review of the DRAFT 'Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program Toxicity and Exposure to Substances in Fracturing Fluids and in the Wastewater Associated with the Hydrocarbon-Bearing Shale' by Glenn Miller, Ph.D., Consulting Environmental Toxicologist to the Natural Resources Defense Council we get the following...
" if drinking water were contaminated with as little as 0.1% of certain shale gas wastewater, it would constitute a violation of a drinking water standard. The small percentage of wastewater that can cause serious contamination supports an argument that effectively any contamination caused by shale gas wastewater would be considered unacceptable...
The flowback water (containing both the shale fracturing water and the produced water) that will carry contaminants from the shale and the fracturing additives is likely to be highly contaminated with metals, salts, and radioactivity that, in some cases, are greater than 1,000 times the drinking water standards. This level of contamination is sufficiently high that any level of contamination of surface and groundwater is unacceptable."
As companies pump out the fracking fluids bubbles and 'burps' of dissolved gas are released. These early gases are usually vented into the atmosphere for up to a month or more until the well hits full production, then it's hooked up to a pipeline.
Natural gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal per unit of energy when burned but a report by Cornell University concluded that methane leakage was 3.6% to 7.9% of gas produced.
Natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), and methane is over 25 times (86 times more damaging than CO2 over a 20-year period) more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100 year period.
In August of 2013, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) led study measured a stunning 6% to 12% methane leakage over one of the U.S.'s largest gas fields, the Uintah Basin, which produces about 1 percent of U.S. natural gas. Releases of those magnitudes could offset the environmental edge that natural gas is said to enjoy over other fossil fuels.
"Unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change." - Major 2011 study by the Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
The 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' study introduces the idea of technology warming potentials (TWPs) to reveal time-dependent tradeoffs inherent in a choice between alternative technologies.
In this approach the potent warming effect of methane emissions undercuts the value of fuel switching. The switch from coal to gas, assuming a total methane leakage of 2.4%, would only reduce TWPs by about 25% over the first three decades - just half the oft touted 50% drop in CO2 emissions from the switch. The study found that if the total leakage exceeds 3.2%, gas becomes worse for the climate than coal.
"Some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation is occurring in regions where water is already at a premium. A paper published last month by Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by an industry-tied reporting website called FracFocus.
Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas "with high or extremely high water stress" because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.
The Ceres report goes on to say that:
Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities and energy developers, which is only likely to continue. ... Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams...
Moreover, an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota." - Tom Kenworthy, Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies
"Independent producers will spend $1.50 drilling this year for every dollar they get back. Achieving energy self-sufficiency depends on easy credit and oil prices high enough to cover well costs. Even with crude above $100 a barrel, shale oil and gas producers are spending money faster than they make it." - Bloomberg, Dream of U.S. Oil Independence Slams Against Shale Costs
Water is a commodity whose scarcity will have a profound effect on the world within the next few decades - this makes the reevaluation of our values regarding fresh water use not voluntary but mandatory. We will have to drastically change the way in which we view our freshwater as a resource.
If seven billion of us are using 60 percent of our renewable freshwater supply what percentage will 10 billion people use?
Can we achieve, and sustain, the enormous harvest we need from our planet to feed ourselves? The answer is for now but we're quickly moving towards ecological overshoot regarding our freshwater resources.
The gap between human demand and supply is known as ecological overshoot. To better understand the concept think of your bank account - in it you have $5000.00 paying monthly interest. Month after month you take the interest plus $100. That $100 is your financial, or for our purposes, your ecological overshoot and its withdrawal is obviously unsustainable.
Fracking is poisoning our precious freshwater supply and drawing the inevitable freshwater overshoot date ever closer, certainly dating it much closer than it needs to be. Are our fresh water resources on your radar screen?
If not, they should be.