Reconciling Water Resources and Energy Needs

March 6, 2013

By Elizabeth Cutright

“What cost are you willing to pay for energy independence?” I asked in a recent blog post. “Does it make sense to sacrifice our water quality to achieve a lower price at the pump?”

We all know it takes energy to collect, treat, and deliver water. Many of us are also painfully aware that, in order to generate power using traditional means (like oil and gas), you must have access to ample water resources. So although there’s a lot of excitement regarding the International Energy Agency’s claims that the country’s natural gas resources are capable of catapulting the US into a new era of energy independence, that prognostication should be taken with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism; especially when you factor in growing public awareness of the ancillary–and often negative–effects of increased natural gas production.

Because when Jeff Rubin asks–in a special report for the Globe and Mail— “Is there water enough for the US to frack its way to energy independence,” the answer evokes not only the warnings and worries of environmentalists, it also “implicates water footprints and the intricate relationship that is the water–energy nexus.

What is the water cost of energy independence? Well, for starters, it can take anywhere 65,000–600,000 gallons of water to drill a single shale well (, and when hydraulic fracking is involved, that amount can jump to 4.5 million gallons per well.

That number bears repeating: 4.5 million gallons per well.

That’s a boatload of water.  It’s equivalent to filling about seven olympic-sized pools or providing a family of four with water for roughly 31 years (

As I pointed out in my blog “The Water Footprint of Energy Independence”, a recent report, drafted by the River Network and titled Burning Our Rivers, reveals that “the fastest-growing use of freshwater in the US involves electricity production by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants, totaling more than ½ of all freshwater withdrawals from US surface waters, which is “˜more than any other economic sector, including agriculture, and occurs in an era when all other use sectors are reducing water withdrawals.'”

In that same blog, I suggested that perhaps “water scarcity may be the only thing to keep hydraulic natural gas fracking in check,” but it turns out I may have underestimated the will of the people.

According to a recent survey released by the nonprofit Civil Society Institute (CSI) in conjunction with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), most Americans are not willing to trade energy independence for clean water. Additionally, those in support of protecting water resources from unchecked domestic energy production uncover a dramatic bipartisan consensus: 92% of Republicans, 87% of Independents, and 98% of Democrats indicate a preference for political leadership that balances “energy production in US with protecting clean water and air.”

Even more striking, the poll results show that 92% of Americans believe US energy planning and decision should be based on “a comprehensive understanding of what our national water resources are.”

And when it comes to fracking, the poll participants indicated they would support cautious government action, especially in relation to expanding shale gas production for export (a move many believe to be “a risky gamble that could hurt the US economy while boosting the economies of foreign nations [i.e., China]).”  Even more significantly, “‘an overwhelming majority of respondents–86%–believe there should be “more studies of the health and environmental consequences of the chemicals used in fracking.”

It appears the poll results indicate a clear mandate from the American public.

In response to the polls findings, Pam Solo, president and founder, Civil Society Institute, said: “This survey should be a wake-up call for federal elected officials. The polling data we are releasing today should give pause to decision makers who assume the American public will support energy policies without regard to consequences or the impact these choices have on safe drinking water.”

And Heather White, Executive Director of the Environmental Working Group concludes, “The takeaway from this important poll is that access to clean, safe drinking water is first and foremost on Americans’ minds as we dive headlong into a new era of energy production in the United States.”

Author’s Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is a previous editor of Water Efficiency, Distributed Energy, and All One Water.

Photo 140820417 © Susanne Fritzsche |
Microplastics that were fragmented from larger plastics are called secondary microplastics; they are known as primary microplastics if they originate from small size produced industrial beads, care products or textile fibers.
Photo 43114609 © Joshua Gagnon |
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Photos courtesy Chino Basin Water Reclamation District.
From left: Matt Hacker, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Marco Tule, Inland Empire Utilities Agency Board President; Gil Aldaco, Chino Basin Water Conservation District Board Treasurer; Curt Hagman, San Bernardino County Supervisor; Elizabeth Skrzat, CBWCD General Manager; Mark Ligtenberg, CBWCD Board President; Kati Parker, CBWCD Board Vice President; Teri Layton, CBWCD Board member; Amanda Coker, CBWCD Board member.