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Fracking Water Hogs

Bob Bellis filled his tanker at a hydrant in Greeley, Colo., in August to supply a drilling site. (Matthew Staver for The New York Times)As summer comes to an end, much of the country is still suffering from drought conditions. While rain brought relief to areas in the East, the Plains and Western parts of the country are still experiencing above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation levels. The impacted areas also happen to be where a lot of our food is grown and we’ve highlighted how we can expect higher food prices due to the reduced crop production.

Looking ahead, there seems to be little relief for farmers and ranchers in the short-term. The National Weather Service predicts that drought conditions will continue for the Plains and much of the West through the Fall with little indication that precipitation levels will return to normal, let alone to the level needed to alleviate drought conditions. Compounding this, the oil and gas fracking boom, especially in the Rockies, is starting to become a competitor for water resources. Fracking requires a significant amount of water. A recent report highlighted that the amount of water currently needed for fracking operations in Colorado is up to 13 billion gallons per year, enough to serve nearly 300,000 people.

For their operations, oil and gas companies pay as much as $1000 to $2000 for an acre foot of water. In contrast, farmers and ranchers pay about $30 per acre foot and can pay up to $100 when water is scarce. The large amounts paid by the oil and gas companies are often a welcome relief for cash-strapped utilities and water departments, which sets up an uncomfortable dynamic. Farmers and ranchers cannot match the price paid by oil and gas companies, which means they face an increasing risk of water shortage that will likely impede their crop and cattle production. At the same time, utilities and water departments need money and the increased price that oil and gas companies pay would help fund infrastructure upkeep and other necessary improvements.

So, either farmers and ranchers (and eventually consumers) lose out on affordable water or the utilities and water departments lose out on funding. The only party that doesn’t lose out is the oil and gas companies, who are already making record profits from fracking. These kinds of lose-lose-win situations will likely only increase in number, as we seem to be losing the battle against extreme energy and lack of action on climate change will result in increased water shortages.

But, it doesn't have to be this way. Shifting the focus from extreme energy to renewable sources like wind and solar would both stave off the worst impact of climate change and provide an energy source that doesn't consume huge amounts of water. It's not too late yet, but we are facing a rapidly closing window of opportunity.