Water Quality Research

The rapid spread of oil and gas development over the past decade made possible by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has resulted in lower costs for oil and natural gas and a decrease in the use of coal for electricity generation. It has also raised public concern about contamination of drinking water supplies.

Oil and gas development may pose risks to drinking water supplies, both surface and ground waters, through the inadvertent release of hydraulic fracturing fluid, oil and natural gas, flowback water, and produced water. If hazardous compounds in these waters follow pathways to drinking water supplies, public health is at risk. Pathways that may threaten drinking water supplies include spills and leaks on the surface and releases resulting from poor well construction and hydraulic fracturing in the subsurface.

Above: collecting well-water samples for analysis. 

The water quality team of the AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network is investigating the surface and subsurface releases using public databases and field monitoring. The focus is on oil and gas development in three different types of basins in Colorado (the Denver-Julesburg Basin, the Piceance Basin, the Raton Basin) owing to the extensive, publicly-available databases administered by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. These databases are being used to address the following issues:

  • Identification of the contaminants of concern used in hydraulic fracturing fluid,
  • Trends in the use of contaminants of concern in hydraulic fracturing fluid,
  • Assessment of the occurrence of methane and organic contaminants in drinking water wells,
  • Correlation of the occurrence of methane and organic contaminants to basin type, geology, and well construction deficiencies, and
  • Evaluation of the effects of surface spills and leaks on surface and ground waters.

Progress on addressing these issues will provide network researchers with a sense of the frequency and severity of water quality threats. Better understanding of the risks of these threats will lead to recommendations for best management practices for well construction and oil and gas extraction and for better judgment of setback distances between oil and gas wells and residences relying on vulnerable water supplies for drinking water.