Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council and rancher Kenny Clabaugh discuss the impacts of coal-bed methane gas on ranching operations in the Powder River Basin in 2006. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The coal-bed methane gas boom that dotted northeast Wyoming with rigs and workers in the 2000s and left a legacy of bankruptcies and orphaned wells will also have lingering impacts on groundwater for up to 144 years, according to a new study by the Wyoming State Geological Survey.

Some sandstone aquifers in the Powder River Basin have declined by more than 100 feet due to the industry’s preferred method of pumping large volumes of water from coal seams to release the microbial-formed coal-bed methane gas, according the study, “Groundwater Level Recovery in the Sandstones of the Lower Tertiary Aquifer System of the Powder River Basin, Wyoming.”

The industry has pumped about 1 million acre-feet of water from coal seams since 2001 and discharged it onto the surface, partially depleting coal aquifers as well as associated sandstone aquifers. That’s enough water to fill Alcova Reservoir to maximum capacity more than five times.

“The calculated times of recovery, which vary from 20-144 years with a mean value of 52 years, probably represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade,” the study states. 

This graph depicts the location of 39 Bureau of Land Management sandstone and coal seam monitoring well sites in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. (U.S. Geological Survey)

“Furthermore,” the study continues, “slowing recovery rates commonly observed in some coal seam aquifers may impede the return to predevelopment water levels in the proximal sandstones.”

The most severely drawn down aquifers are within 20 miles of the Powder River, both north and south of Interstate 90, study co-author Karl Taboga said. That’s also the area where much of the remaining active coal-bed methane wells are located. While the geographic coverage of the monitoring wells used to measure water tables is limited, it’s believed the industry’s impact to aquifers elsewhere in the Powder River Basin is less severe.

“It appears to be localized,” Taboga said. “In a couple of cases, a little farther east in the Powder River, you may have a site that has a significant groundwater decline, but five or six miles away you have another site where you’re not seeing a significant decline.”

Ongoing groundwater monitoring in the Powder River Basin provides “a unique opportunity to study long-term groundwater changes,” State Geologist and WSGA Director Erin Campbell said in a press statement. “Understanding how subsurface systems relate to groundwater recovery allow us to best plan future development.”

But there are perhaps even more critical lessons to learn, according to longtime critics of the industry’s dewatering practice. 

“The big question is: Will we learn the lesson that we live in a high desert and pumping and dumping and wasting water is the height of greed and ignorance?” the Powder River Basin Resource Council’s former Executive Director Jill Morrison said.

Landowner group: The state was warned

The massive dewatering of groundwater resources has been a point of contention since the beginning of the coal-bed methane gas play in the Powder River Basin in the mid-1990s. In some cases, it sapped water from wells used for livestock and drinking water for homes. While the practice of discharging the water on the surface provided new stock watering ponds for ranchers, it also flooded critical grazing areas and loaded the surface with salts, wreaking havoc on native grasses.

The Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council pressured the state to minimize pumping groundwater and discharging it on the surface. Instead, it urged the state to insist on forcing operators to reinject the water “in a staged fashion.”

Most coal-bed methane wells bring up large volumes of water along with the methane. This 2006 photo shows a water-discharge facility on a Johnson County ranch near the Powder River. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

But the state didn’t take any actions to limit groundwater pumping and surface discharge until 2007 as the development began to decline.

“These aquifers took eons to establish and [coal-bed methane] development has significantly dewatered them in less than two decades,” Morrison said Wednesday, adding that she is “not at all surprised” by the report’s findings. “You can’t pump this gigantic volume of water out of aquifers that took eons to be created, and then expect that it’s going to regenerate.”

The diminished aquifers and long-term recovery rates represent potentially higher costs for rural landowners and agricultural operations to access groundwater, as well as municipalities that might rely on groundwater resources in the future, Morrison said.

Many in the Powder River Basin have already felt those types of impacts, Morrison added.

Diagram of a coal-bed methane well. (Wyoming State Geological Survey)

“The state said industry is responsible and they just have to drill you another water well that’s deeper,” Morrison said. “But that didn’t solve the problem because that [deeper] water isn’t as good, it costs more to pump and they didn’t pay for the extra electricity charges.” 

For years, hydrologists have speculated at the potential rate that both coal and sandstone aquifers might replenish. Early estimates included a rate of 1 inch per year, Morrison said. The new WSGS study estimates a faster rate and notes that recovery rates will vary widely depending on geology.

“Typically, groundwater levels in the affected sandstone aquifers briefly rise by several feet for a few months after [coal-bed methane gas] production ceases,” according to the study. “But this rapid recovery frequently decreases to one foot or less annually after a year or two.”

Recharge and climate change

Climate change may also play a significant role in the rate of aquifer recovery in the Powder River Basin.

The WSGS study notes that its estimated recovery rates “represent best-case estimates because the calculations assume that environmental and hydrological conditions will largely remain unchanged from those of the last decade.”

But Wyoming’s precipitation and snowmelt dynamics are quickly changing due to human-caused climate change, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. While much of Wyoming could see more overall precipitation, less of it will come in the form of snow that drives annual springtime melt.

However, since 2000, the Powder and Tongue River Basins have experienced their longest and deepest droughts compared to the last 100 years, based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, University of Wyoming Department of Geology and Geophysics professor J.J. Shinker said.

“The increase in temperatures coincides with prolonged and deepening regional drought conditions and the trend of increasing temperatures (globally and regionally) is likely to continue well into the projected recovery timeframe,” Shinker told WyoFile via email.

Wyoming’s evolving climate conditions make it extremely difficult to predict aquifer recharge cycles, Shinker said.

This story has been updated to include geographic information from the study’s co-author. -Ed.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Thanks Dustin. Waste not. Want not. For anyone still wet behind the ears on this issue; Madison water is lifeblood here in NE WY. Today, every Wyoming citizen is already paying dearly (and will be paying dearly for a very long time) to subsidize every shower that is taken and every daisy that is sprinkled in the “Energy Capitol of the World”. https://www.gillettewy.gov/city-government/what-s-happening/gillette-regional-water-supply-project I don’t care how many hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on it, or how many unicorn tears it takes to filter down through the magic labyrinth before one shows up in my morning cuppa….. the Razor City will never become the Emerald City. Nor should it. Clean water is precious. Madison water is some of the purest water on the planet. Do we care that Wyoming Refining Co. in Newcastle wastes over .5 MGD of it per day every day in “process water”? Do we even realize that they do? To put this into perspective here….With enough time and materials, the exact same volume of water used to keep an oil refinery in Newcastle Wyoming from melting down could be piped across the Powder River Basin to meet the personal needs of pretty much every man, woman, child, and pet unicorn currently living in Sheridan. Should we? Why? To what end? What is so fundamentally wrong with the way that our big fat powerful brains collectively choose to metabolize finite resources? Are we ever going to get this?

  2. Share some thoughts….
    Once pumping in the CBM play has essentially stopped, recharge/replenishment of water into many of the coals like the Wyodak/Anderson is possible from creeks and streams crossing outcrops of the coals (clinker) that occur along a north to south band just east of Gillette/Wright/Bill where the coal mines are located. There are also many coal/clinker outcrops trending south to north from Buffalo to Sheridan to Decker on the west side of the basin. Whatever water recharges into the coals and adjacent depleted sandstones will obviously not flow down the streams. Not all the coals are continuous to outcrop and they are isolated in the deeper parts of the basin. The shallow sandstones in the PRB are more discontinuous than the coals. It is problematic whether these isolated coals and sands will easily recharge. The coals may not have the same aquifer capacity or permeability as prior to pumping because the cleats, fractures and pore space may have closed-up when the pressure was reduced.The sands are less likely to have been damaged since they are consolidated rock (not loose sand).

  3. I worked on a “water storage and retrieval” system in Campbell County near Gillette. I don’t know if that capability was ever used, but the system was put into place. I am more than a little curious as to what the tax benefits (or other forms of compensation courtesy of the taxpayers) yielded for the State of Wyoming. Did they ever inject the water (or even bothered check to see if the water level recovered in that area once the CBM production stopped?).

    The “I-90 corridor” talk of late seems to invite the question, “What will the minerals producers do for the landowners if they don’t need to spend the money to reclaim the roads? That seems to be an important question to ask. The local landowners may opt to direct a portion of the budgeted amount for road reclamation to more essential efforts (like water storage and retrieval). Landowners need to be proactive.

    I’ve heard the story about the minerals producers walking away from the roads as a benevolent act, but if you believe that . . . Have I got some swamp land for you! Where there’s a budget (with a real commitment), there’s a question that may provide real benefits (If the question is raised in a constructive manner).

  4. It was necessary to reduce the reservoir pressure in the coal seams to release the methane adsorbed on the coal. The only way to reduce the pressure in the coal was to dewater the coal by pumping out the water.

    To characterize the water pumping as wasteful and a mistake is ignoring the incredible value of all the gas produced from the coals in the Powder River Basin. Yes there were some water wells that dried up in the basin, but that needs to be balanced by the wealth created for the companies, workers, government through royalties and taxes and the landowners through royalties on private land and access fees.

    If it takes a hundred plus years to recharge the shallow reservoirs in the PRB, that is not an unreasonable trade off for the amount of gas produced.

  5. Not sure what if anything has been left out of the story, but I appreciate the work that went into Dustin’s work here, and in past reports for WyoFile. It is always a good starting point for learning about important Wyoming issues that often go unnoticed by me.

  6. DEQ and the state engineers were told that the CBM open season was going to do exactly this but state employees only can do what the governor wants anyway. Lee is right. The state does not even look at having a real permitting process. Bondurant for housing developments, Boysen reservoir as a drilling muds/waste pit, Kemmerer as a nuculear storage facility, etc. Keep fighting the good fight citizens, corporate and exploratory damage has made almost all of Wyoming an industrial wasteland. BS

  7. The kind of attitude in Cheyenne: The Hot Springs County Commissioners asked the State Engineers Office to attend 3 of their meetings concerning the issuance of ground water appropriation permits in the vicinity of the Big Spring. Finally, the chairman asked the representative of the State Engineers Office if they had ever turned down an application for a groundwater permit. His response, never as far as he knew ( permits were automatically approved ). Then the Chairman asked him what would it take for a ground water permit to be denied. His answer ” it would have to be a real jaw dropper “.

    Subsequent to this, the Supreme Court of the US approved the 4 state compact ( Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming ) which established a minimum in-stream flow in the Platte River and imposed a strict limit on the number of high capacity ground water wells which Wyoming could authorize. As a result, NO new high capacity ground water wells are allowed in the North Platte River drainages of Wyoming. It took a federal court case, the ESA, a 4 state compact and the Supreme Court to stop the State of Wyoming from issuing permits automatically.

    With an attitude like this, its easy to see how the CBM development spiraled out of control. Don’t question it, just approve it and get it off of your desk.

  8. Much needed research. Reminds me of the draw down of the Ogallala acquifer which has minimal recharging and basically represents a fossil lake almost 12 million years old. On the other hand, the Madison acquifer rapidly recharges through sink holes and under ground cave passageways which stretch for thousands of miles. But this is no cave network. I’m not surprised that it could take 144 years to recharge the coal seams and the sandstones – what a mistake and the State of Wyoming and BLM failed to control the CBM development – makes it hard to trust heir judgement on other issues like surface discharge of production waters/brine into Boysen Reservoir. Asleep at the wheel. Or ramrodding energy projects through in quest of jobs and tax revenue despite the risks – damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
    Hot Springs County opposed the drilling of 4 high capacity water wells at the mouth of the Wind River Canyon due to the potential effect on the Big Spring in Hot Springs State Park. Know what they told us. Lets go ahead and drill the wells, and if it affects the Big Spring, WE CAN WORRY ABOUT IT LATER!!!! The wells didn’t get drilled. Oh, yah sure, we can worry about that later – after the resource damage has occurred – sounds like the attitude on CBM development.

    1. Thank you Lee! This is the information all residents need to know and understand. Ground water will be important in the future with these extended droughts and climate change.