fracking reality

As you surely know, fracking gets a lot of publicity these days.  One thing that gets less publicity is the science about fracking.  In the case of the threat that fracking poses to drinking water supplies, things have gotten a little out of hand.  The image of lighting one’s tap water on fire is pretty powerful stuff.  But from what I’ve read, it sounds like the initial issues with fracking fluid and natural gas entering local aquifers derived mainly from poor well construction, specifically the well casings, by inexperienced workers eager to cut corners to make more money.  Furthermore, the wells affected were generally private wells, owned by the very landowners making money off the natural gas being extracted.  Private wells are not subject to the same rigorous testing as public wells and public water supplies, although the EPA recommends that well owners have their wells tested regularly.  So these issues have not generally affected public water supplies.

That’s not what the public believes.  A recent survey published in Environmental Science and Technology found that more Dallas residents worried that fracking was the greatest threat to their water supply [27%] than knew that they lived in a watershed [10%].  (Hint on the watershed question: you live in one.)  This is not just another sad comment on the lack of public science education, rather this is a key piece of information when we discuss water use in general.  Urban water use drives demand in most American cities, not industrial use.  Cutting back on urban water consumption in places like Dallas, with a per capita water use of ~220 gallons per day, has far greater potential impact on the regional water balance than fracking could ever hope to have.  The major coastal cities in California use closer to ~120 gallons per person per day, so it can be done.

I was riding BART the other night, trying to mind my own business despite a loud group of French teenagers.  My ears perked up, though, when one teenager asked her chaperone, a young American woman about my age, if it was safe to drink the tap water everywhere in the US.  At first I was annoyed that Europeans consider us so third-world as to even need to ask such a thing.  (In China, for example, no city yet delivers safe tap water to all its residents.)  But then the American’s response floored me: “Uh, sure, maybe except in areas with a lot of fracking.”  It took all of my willpower not to launch into a tirade of facts about water.  It’s frankly impressive how quickly environmentalists have won the P.R. battle about fracking.  If only we could harness that momentum to educate the public about far more pressing issues when it comes to water supply…

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