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Colorado's water challenge

(Editor’s note: In April, about 120 business and community leaders from Denver traveled to Fort Collins for the 2012 Colorado Experience trip, sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. This is the first in a series of essays written for ColoradoBiz by several participants.)

The Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation recently led a delegation of local leaders to Fort Collins to delve into a thoughtful dialogue on various issues facing our communities.  Learning how Fort Collins and Colorado State University bridge the gap between college town and business incubator exposed us to a vibrant, well-run community collectively solving problems and pro-actively planning for the future. It was refreshing to witness a community thriving with strong leadership.

The group heard from experts, toured businesses and research facilities and engaged in panel discussion on a variety of issues – education, energy, technology and health. This included a panel discussion on energy, water and the environment in Northern Colorado.  It was a sober and enlightening look at the challenges Colorado faces. The group listened to presentations from the Governor’s Office, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, and the oil and natural gas industry. 

The presentations outlined some staggering numbers. Colorado’s population is expected to nearly double by 2050. This massive growth will occur throughout the state, particularly along the Front Range and the West Slope. According to the Governor’s Office, Colorado will need between 600,000 and 1 million acre-feet of additional water annually by 2050 in order to meet growing municipal and industrial water needs.  Agriculture is currently the state’s largest water user at approximately 85 percent. In contrast, the hydraulic fracturing process used in oil and natural gas development consumes .08 percent – a fraction of 1 percent.

All water users will have to find ways to improve efficiency and ultimately consume less.  The bright prospects for oil and natural gas development and associated economic benefits in Colorado rely on responsible water management.  Innovation can reduce water consumption and help find alternative methods for producing our nation’s oil and gas resources. These game-changing technologies are the types of solutions that researchers from CSU and other institutions in Colorado have a long track record of developing.

In addition to water conservation, the panel discussed how safeguarding the water supply is of utmost importance to the oil and gas industry. This is true for the life of the well – from drilling to hydraulic fracturing to long-term production. Effective well design, wellbore construction, and monitoring prevent migration of contaminants into drinking water aquifers.  Micro-seismic analysis, electronic wellbore logging and effective operating and monitoring practices help ensure well integrity over the long term. These processes are regulated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has decades of experience overseeing oil and gas development. 

Solving the long-term water supply question is essential for strengthening Colorado’s economy. The agriculture, energy and tourism sector are engines of economic growth and prosperity in Colorado. The only fixed variable in this equation is the water supply.  There is no silver bullet for addressing the water supply gap. Reuse and conservation will play a role in meeting future demand as well as agriculture transfers and technological innovation. While the challenges are real and tough decisions must be made, the solutions are achievable. 

Going forward, innovation and collaboration are essential for our success. Energy development, water use and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive. As the various water supply stakeholders chart a path forward, they would be well-served to emulate the collaborative approach used by business and political leaders in Fort Collins and throughout Colorado.


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Shea Loper

Shea Loper is Government and Regulatory Affairs Advisor for Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc.

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