USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 16, 2013

Ogallala Aquifer

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 10:24 pm

While the widespread use of the centrifugal pump in the decades following WWII has rendered the ever-declining levels of the Ogallala aquifer more susceptible to contamination, hydraulic fracturing and potential oil pipelines put undue pressure on groundwater resources throughout the United States. And what are being placed within the relatively narrow frame of environmental debates, accelerated pollution of the Ogallala comes at the worst time possible: a nation-wide drought.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process in which fracturing fluid is injected under great pressure deep into wells and then horizontally through shale rock. This is done with the aim of fracturing the shale rock in which the methane is trapped and then collecting said natural gas. The controversy with hydraulic fracturing arises from the long and incredibly toxic list of chemicals that are mixed with salt water and then pumped into the ground.

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A study of the Ogallala aquifer released by the EPA on 11/09/11 found very elevated levels of a chemical commonly found in the mixture of hydraulic fracturing fluid. MSNBC reported on the study of the Pavillion, Wyoming area. The EPA testing came a year after the agency had warned local residents to avoid drinking, cooking and showering with the water and found  “the wells also contained benzene at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols — another dangerous human carcinogen — acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel” (Lustgarten). This confirmed the fears of Pavillion residents who had previously complained that the water smelled of gasoline, turned black. The residents also associate nerve pain and neurological issues to exposure to the pollution. While Canadian drilling company Encana has denied responsibility for the pollution, they have supplied fresh water to affected residents, which may seem like an admission of sorts to some.

This news does not come as a shock to many who saw similar results from hydraulic fracturing exposed in the academy award-winning documentary, Gasland. In fact, the horrendous mix of chemicals used in ‘fracking’ has gained national attention and turned public opinion against the natural gas industry. However, this news may have come too late in the case of the Ogallala aquifer as hydraulic fracturing is already established. Once the nasty chemicals have infiltrated the ground water and made their way into such a vast aquifer as the Ogallala, pollution can spread and have devastating health effects.

The region’s agricultural industries experience near-total reliance on the Aquifer’s resources. These farming communities are hundreds of miles from rivers and thousands of miles from the hope of silver-bullet desalination proposals. Their watery predicament is only being exacerbated by their continued pumping. Human exposure to these fracking chemicals, along with pollutants from large-scale agriculture and potentially oil spills from to-be-announced pipeline routes, increases as more of the water is drained. The concentration of the contaminants is equal to the mass of the pollutant molecules, divided by the volume of water remaining.


Hopeless as it may seem, a handful of opportunities have been suggested for water in this regions. For example, a 2009 paper by the Bureau of Reclamation recommended large-scale reverse osmosis treatment of water in separate aquifers below the Ogallala. In their recommendation these would be integrated with wind power production facilities. The authors note that RO is prohibited by relatively high electricity prices from grids. They foresee strong co-benefits between energy and water production in High Plains regions that experience persistent high winds. They created a small demonstration plant. Among the final recommendations are measurements for additional contaminants, especially arsenic, as well as a large-scale demonstration to estimate capital and operation costs. Since then, many advances are being made in reverse osmosis technology. Two major questions for future market relevancy include: what is the price of water Ogallala recipients are willing to pay, and what the lowest cost RO firms would be willing and able to offer. Indeed, market relevancy will be a vital question to any and all future Ogallala substitutes or restrictions.

With half of all US counties designated as natural disaster areas by Department of Agriculture, the regions that rely on the Aquifer have been some of the driest. For fracking, water is often trucked in for hundreds of miles to open up new methane wells horizontally. As mentioned, the increasing rate is increasing exposure to all of its contaminants. It is an open question whether the climate change benefits of natural gas harvesting might yield some long-term benefit to Ogallala’s replenishment, but evidence presently suggests that drought, depletion, fracking and pesticides offer significant incentives to consider out-of-box solutions.

By Kyle Ferree & Sean Hernandez

Beltran, J. Martinez. Koo-Oshua, S. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “Water desalination for agricultural applications.” Land and Water Discussion Paper 5. Web. 2006.

“EPA Pavillion Groundwater Investigation.” N.p., 9 Nov. 2011. Web. 10 Apr.   2013. <


Gasson, Christopher. Global Water Intelligence. “What Is In America’s Drought for the Water Industry?” 02 Aug 2012. Web. 04 Apr 2013.
Lustgarten, Abrahm. “‘Fracking’ Chemical Found in Town’s Aquifer.”

NBCNews, 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 09 Apr. 2013.

Swift, Andy. Et al. “Desalination and Water Purification Research and Development Program Report No. 146. Wind Power and Water Desalination Technology Integration. Web. Department of Interior – Bureau of Reclamation. July 2008. Web. 14 Apr 2013.



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