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Water quality study provides baseline data for North Fork

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A recently completed two-year study shows surface, spring and groundwater samples collected throughout the North Fork area testing below method federal detection limits for a list of major ions, metals and volatile organic compounds that can occur during the process known as hydraulic fracturing.

The results of the study are contained in the recently released "2014-2015 Water Quality Monitoring Report." The study was funded by the Paonia-based Western Slope Conservation Center (WSCC) in partnership with the Colorado Water and Energy Research Center (CWERC), based at the University of Colorado Boulder. Samples for the study were collected throughout the North Fork of the Gunnison River basin, including Oak Mesa, Leroux Creek and the Muddy Creek drainage above Paonia Reservoir.

CWERC provides scientific-based information on the links between water and energy development. CWERC members presented the study's findings last Thursday at the Paonia Library. Water samples were collected from two surface water sources, three springs and 12 domestic wells, including in watershed areas near and below where gas drilling is already occurring on a limited basis.

Samples were collected in September 2014 and June 2015. Methane, which can occur naturally in area groundwater and is not hazardous to human health, according to the report, was found in "low concentrations in some samples" collected during September when water flows are low.

The study aims to build baseline information that can be used for future comparisons, said Alex Johnson, executive director for WSCC. While all land uses, such as highway construction, have potential to affect water quality, at this time, "the biggest concern is oil and gas."

WSCC, which came into existence due to concerns over the coal mining industry's effects on water quality some 38 years ago, has collected more than 13 years of data on surface water through its River Watch volunteer water monitoring program. Those studies include data on roughly 40 "elements of concern that have been associated with mining, wastewater treatment, and agriculture," according to the organization's website. The recent study also aims to expand upon that program.

In the event hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"-related analytes -- chemicals tested for during the study -- were to affect area wells in the future, "the responsibility falls on the well user" to prove the contamination is a direct result of fracking, said CWERC researcher Katya Hafich. "The baseline data is the beginning of that process."

Hydrologist and former CWERC director Dr. Mark Williams has studied the effects of mining and other human activities on water and the environment since the 1990s. Williams spoke of the risks of contamination by explaining the migration of ground water sources using the Durango area as an example.

"There is a very low incidence of ground water contamination" associated with hydraulic fracturing, said Williams, but there are examples, including a recent bubbling up of methane in West Divide Creek near Rifle that was traced to drilling activity. With about 100,000 wells drilled in the state, about half of them active, and more drilling proposed, "What will happen over time?" asked Williams.

The current cost to test a single water source for a full index of analytes runs about $500-$700, said Hafich. CWERC offers a step-by-step guide for well users, "Monitoring Water Quality in Areas of Oil and Natural Gas Development: A Guide for Water Well Users," on its website. CWERC also recommends regular follow-up testing to document changes over time and at different times of the year.

WSCC will continue to seek funding for future studies, and plans to continue building baseline data, said Johnson. That information "can be very empowering."

The full report is available at cwerc.colorado.edu.

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