Texas sacrifices water for energy

You know how fracking is so controversial, because applying high pressure to deep formations might cause hydrocarbons to migrate upwards and contaminate shallow drinking water aquifers?  Texas has got the next best thing.  This article calls it “fracking for uranium” which is just plain wrong.  Fracking relies on high pressure to break apart rocks holding oil and gas.  Uranium harvesting relies upon geochemistry to leach uranium out of rocks – no high pressure needed – and it has relatively low water requirements.  Unfortunately, it does have one other difference that makes it way more controversial: uranium harvesting is occurring within drinking water aquifers.

Here’s how it works.  Uranium is naturally present at trace levels in certain rock formations.  A company in Texas is injecting oxygenated water into underground aquifers that are normally anoxic.  This exposes the rock formations to different geochemistry and induces the uranium to dissolve into solution.  Extraction wells recover the uranium-laced groundwater and precipitate out the uranium.

I’m sure the process works, but at what cost?  Injection typically acts like a “bubble” that expands outward, with some mixing at the fringes.  In other settings, like aquifer storage and recovery, it has already been shown that it’s virtually impossible to completely recover the injected “bubble” due to the mixing at the fringes.  If you’re just talking about water storage, as in aquifer storage and recovery, that’s one thing.  But we’re talking about intentionally mobilizing a contaminant in a drinking water aquifer.  The mixing at the fringes means that uranium is going to stay in the groundwater, and potentially be pulled into someone else’s well eventually.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal now, especially if the aquifer in question isn’t heavily used.  But Texas is really running out of water.  The drought hit Texas hard this year, and their response has largely been to push for further conservation, rather than to expand long-term plans for water recycling or desalination (the only two realistic long-term options).  So even if energy is at stake, I’d be awfully hesitant to sign away aquifers for uranium leaching, given that there are many sources of energy, but Texas is running short of water sources.

silver lining of Texas’ historic drought

I suppose my inherent optimism makes me bring this story to light: right now, Texas beaches are cleaner than in years.  Runoff is so historically low this year, so far fewer stormwater pollutants have been flushed off the streets and surfaces, shepherded into conveyance, and discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.  Fewer pollutants in the Gulf shore means cleaner beaches.  Hopefully people escaping the heat at the beach are enjoying the better quality of the experience.  And it’s probably best to avoid the beach after the next big storm rinses everything off.

Kansas and Texas: the next Yemen

I wrote earlier about the groundwater overdraft in Yemen, which was largely due to irrigated farming (specifically for qat, a mild stimulant).  I sort of brushed off the idea that the Ogallala aquifer was drying up.  But, researchers recently used satellite data to show that yes, it is drying up, and at an alarming rate.  In the southern portions, the aquifer may be unable to support irrigation as soon as 30 years from now.  The northern portions seem to be holding steady in water level, due to rainfall and infiltration from lakes, so only Kansas and Texas would be affected.  The same study showed that groundwater tables fluctuate widely in California’s Central Valley, although a clear decline is not evident.  These are major farm belts in the US, and the loss of irrigation water would be, quite simply, devastating for those areas.  We would do well to take heed and adopt proper policy measures to sustain these critical but not unlimited water resources.