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.
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.
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.