The Madison Aquifer and Marlin Well, shown in relationship to political boundaries in the Fremont County area. (Aethon Energy)

Our aquifers, rivers and freshwater resources in Wyoming and the arid West are rapidly shrinking to the point where they may soon be more valuable than gold. Unfortunately, our Wyoming regulators and policy makers are treating our unpolluted streams, reservoirs and groundwater aquifers like they are expendable. For example, Wyoming regulators have approved permits that allow polluted oil and gas-produced water in the central-Wyoming Moneta Divide field to be discharged untreated into freshwater streams and aquifers. 

Opinion

The Moneta Divide oil and gas field produces enormous quantities of polluted water as a by-product of the natural gas extraction process. Although the oil and gas operator, Aethon, has the option of treating the produced water and discharging or reusing it, the industry is able to forego the cost of treatment because our Wyoming regulators allow it to discharge untreated polluted water directly into our streams and aquifers.

In the Moneta Divide field, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality is currently allowing Aethon to discharge produced wastewater into streams that flow into Boysen Reservoir. Recently, Aethon and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have moved forward with actions to exempt the freshwater Madison Aquifer from protection as a groundwater resource to allow Aethon to dump its polluted wastewater into this valuable aquifer.  

The Madison Aquifer is a critically important freshwater aquifer for both current and future water supplies. According to hydrogeologists, this aquifer is among the most prolific and reliable aquifers in the state of Wyoming. 

Using the aquifer for disposal of millions of gallons of waste fluid is not wise water-resource management policy.

The Paleozoic Aquifer System, which includes the Madison Aquifer, currently supplies reliable, good quality groundwater to the cities of Gillette, Newcastle, Laramie, Pine Haven, Vista West, Beulah, Moorcroft, Dayton, Lander, Laramie, Douglas and Glenrock, as well as most of the towns in the southeastern Bighorn Basin. In addition to serving as a sole source of groundwater for many Wyoming municipalities, the Madison Aquifer also supplies large quantities of groundwater to many ranching operations in the Bighorn Basin, Powder River Basin, and the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming.

The WOGCC recently forwarded its approval of Aethon’s request to exempt the Madison Aquifer from protection as a groundwater resource to Region 8 EPA, where the permit request is pending. If the EPA agrees with the Wyoming regulators, the agency will allow Aethon to dump trillions of gallons of toxic wastewater per year into this freshwater aquifer. 

Water quality and yield data indicate that the water quality in the Madison Aquifer is very good at this location and the aquifer is capable of yielding hundreds of gallons per minute. If the initial yields are sustainable, wise-water resource management policy would preserve this aquifer as a future water supply. According to the WOGCC, there are no plans for monitoring potential impacts from the injected fluids on the Madison Aquifer. The permit would rely solely on the results of a groundwater model that was developed using little to no site-specific data.

With climate change and droughts becoming increasingly common in the western U.S., it is reasonable to assume that there will be a strong future demand for this water by towns, cities and agriculture in the region. Using the aquifer for disposal of millions of gallons of waste fluid is not wise water-resource management policy. 

While scientists and citizen conservation groups continue to fight to stop toxic wastewater from polluting our streams and aquifers, industry continues to seek and obtain permits from the DEQ and the WOGCC to dump their polluted wastewater into our freshwater streams and aquifers.   Unfortunately, Wyoming regulators and politicians rarely say NO to the oil and gas industry — and only when citizens protest and present valid reasons to protect our freshwater resources.

Now is the time to protect all of our freshwater resources for current and future generations. It is time for industry to start paying its way and stop relying on taxpayers to pay the ultimate cost of cleanup and/or loss of Wyoming’s valuable water resources. Get engaged and talk to your local, state and federal policy makers and tell them to protect our freshwater resources.

Sue Spencer

Sue Spencer is a retired Wyoming registered professional geologist who spent her 35-year career working as a consulting hydrogeologist in Utah and Wyoming. As a senior hydrogeologist with Weston Engineering...

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  1. how about shutting down all exploration for gas & oil ?

    that way those states down stream like colorado & california can replenish their need for water.
    all the while the people that live in wyoming can pay extra for gas & oil or freeze in the winter months !

  2. This follows a longtime pattern: companies want to extract resources from our state as cheaply as they can, regardless of the harm they do, to increase their short-term profits. The state oil & gas commission is in effect a service bureau for the industry. Please send a message to Gov. Mark Gordon opposing this awful decision:

  3. Ms Spencer, Have or others been able to obtain samples of water being injected? Or daily quantity?
    This could certainly be a major problem. Contact state rep’s we to get to the bottom of this.

  4. Our state has recognized the need to diversify our economical needs. The Oil and Gas companies, have got to have some conscience to how and where they dump their pollutants. We can not be a state that allows toxic water dumped. Maybe effected communities need to stand up to these corporations if the EPA is neglecting or turning their backs. This is not a political discussion. Politics and health no long belong in the same conversation!! The sooner the powers that be honor our health over money, the healthier, wealthier our state can be.

  5. If the wastewater flows into Boysen Reservoir, how long before it affects the fishery in Wind River Canyon and beyond?

  6. If Wyoming employees are allowing this then we have the power to fire them. I misread this as a National problem. No way this should be tolerated.

  7. What a disaster this would be.
    Leave our water alone!!!
    Monsters! I wish the EPA would do the Right thing… But this corrupt dog faced pony soldier of an administration cannot do one thing right. If they can punish us for being conservative they will.

    1. C’mon Bob…..Wyoming is the only State in the Union that takes primacy for injecting waste into its aquifers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but refuses to take primacy for managing our citizen’s drinking water under the same Act. Do you ever wonder why? No because it appears you are listening to right wing media sources instead of reading and comprehending.

      The Federal EPA gave the State the responsibility to implement the Federal Laws and when those are ignored by the state it may cost Wyoming primacy for the program. I am not sure of the primacy requirements but I suspect Wyoming as a commission to override the requirements which kicks the Federal review into place.

      It is clear the EPA set the correct rules in place to protect the aquifer and WYOMING CONSERVATIVES have created a political football to foist the decision on the Feds. Continuing to vote for exploitive conservatives into power has cost Wyoming taxpayers money and polluted our state. See Coal Ash Ponds for an example of what happens when we privatize profits and publicize the losses.

      Fascism is winning in America and Wyoming conservative voters are to blame.