To The Last Drop: Will Illinois run out of Water over Fracking?

It would seem fundamental to any reasonable assessment from an industry requiring substantial amounts of a critical resource to first be certain that there is a supply chain for that resource, and what are the constraints in accessing or over-using that resource. In a media-driven culture framing everything in terms of marketplace dynamics, and which exalts the pre-eminent efficiency of private business over government inefficiency, it seems odd that the key component to an industry’s efficiency is ignored by the industry, or worse, simply assumed to be in adequate supply. Hardly fits the narrative of the pretense of the greater efficiency of private business. Sort of like invading a country without taking along fuel because it is assumed there will be enough when the army gets there.

The resource I refer to is water. For fracking companies the availability of the very substance they use to extract gas from the earth should be fundamental. It should be, but it is not. And that should inform the debate, but it hasn’t. And, at a minimum, it should call into question the poor state of planning by the fracking industry, though nobody seems to have pointed that out yet, until now.

In any industry data should drive the conversation, but the climate of debate is no longer about the quality of the data, but instead is about who controls the data and how it is controlled. From the start of the so-called debate on fracking in Illinois, truth or any semblance of truth has been sorely lacking both from the industry and from the Illinois State government.

So who owns the data on fracking in Illinois? Certainly it isn’t freely available to the people who might then construct reasonable and informed decisions. The activists and regular citizens concerned about their communities, their health and the health of their children are repeatedly denied Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, requests by the IDNR, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. That proves that the IDNR has become more than a public service organization that should transcend party politics and economic pressure, and is now a function of the industry itself. It is easier to acquire documents dealing with national security through FOIA requests to the federal government than it is to illuminate the basic facts about Illinois’ fracking policy. The only available data, ironically, as incomplete as it is, comes from the industry itself.

It is very easy to believe that the availability of water in Illinois represents a near infinite resource. We are blessed with access to Lake Michigan, the iconic Mississippi river, lakes, ponds and an average yearly precipitation amount of around 46 inches, bringing some 60 billion gallons of water to Illinois. That much precipitation seems at first a fantastic number, but that number is simply a starting point. Quickly that 60 billion gallons begins to reveal its finite and precious nature as a sizable portion is lost to evaporation almost immediately. Still more becomes locked into the soil and plants. Another substantial portion runs off to lakes and rivers and streams, and more replenishes the aquifers which are truly the life’s blood of our state. This says nothing of current human use. 60 billion gallons falling on the state does not mean 60 billion gallons of accessible or useable water.

The amount of waters locked up in aquifers is unimportant, because they must continuously be replenished. It is a balanced system, and disruptions to that balance must be weighed carefully to prevent a dangerous imbalance. No such research has taken place either by the industry or by the IDNR. The unguarded and unrestricted use of water creates potentially disastrous consequences. For the free marketplace people, it is like borrowing continuously against the principle. Eventually the principle evaporates. Pun intended.

Is this the future of Illinois? a rusting ship sits high and dry in the Ural Sea, the product of a blatant disregard of the environment.

Is this the future of Illinois? a rusting ship sits high and dry in the Ural Sea, the product of a blatant disregard of the environment.

Now, there are two key data points regarding the wells. The first is how many wells, and second where will they be concentrated? The 60 billion gallon number is an average statewide. The top 20% of the state is a bit wetter than the middle 30%. The heaviest rainfall, or roughly 50% of the overall rainfall falls in the southern half, or about 30 billion gallons. Again, this is an average. This year might be a bit higher, an aberration in a string of drier and hotter than normal years. For our logistics friends in the fracking camp, that is critical. They need that water to produce profits, right?

Why is that so important? The state of Illinois refuses to tell its citizens how many fracking wells there will be. All that we have to go on is an industry leak that says they intend to turn Illinois into a Midwest version of the Bakken fields of North Dakota, which would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 thousand wells and that they would be concentrated in the southern portion of the state. The average well uses between 2 and 6 million gallons of water; water incidentally that cannot be cleaned or recycled because of radioactivity and proprietary cancer causing chemicals, we must remove that waste water from future use and availability. That represents 20-40 billion gallons on the low side and 60-120 billion gallons of water on the high side used to frack those wells.

Even at the low end of the projected water requirements for the projected 10-20 thousand wells the region would already be at or beyond the amount of water falling on southern Illinois. Even if every single drop could be gathered and utilized for fracking, that would leave little or nothing for crops, communities and even replenishing favorite fishing holes. At the high end, it overburdens the entire region, imperils the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, creates a logistical and political nightmare over massive shipping of tens of billions of gallons of water, and eradicates whole communities; the very same communities the so-called fracking boom pledged to bring thousands of jobs to. Man, irony can be a bitch.

While this is only meant to be a simple assessment, it indicates a looming crisis over water availability throughout the state and across state lines. More than that, it reveals a near criminal lapse in planning, judgment and basic business sense in the lack of consideration for supply chain basics, a flagrant disregard for the environment, and the health and safety of the citizens of Illinois. But we expect that business may run blindly in pursuit of naked profits, which is why we have government. So when industry fails in any regard there arises the necessity for correction and justice rather than the complicity and conspiracy by the government running hand in hand with industry.

Now, in closing, and to be fair some frackers are proposing to supplement water with hydrofluoric acid, combustible propane or nitrogen pulverizing the earth beneath our feet, roads and homes. That would lesson a little the burden on our water supply, but trade up for a whole separate set of problems. What could go wrong? But then that’s another article…

WC Turck is the author of 4 books, including the critically acclaimed Bosnian War Memoir “Everything for Love,” and Broken: One soldier’s unexpected journey home, at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com. Turck wrote and produced two critically acclaimed plays, “Occupy my Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol” and “The People’s Republic of Edward Snowden.” He can be heard weekdays from 9-11am, and 1-3pm on the Revolution and Beer show with partner and cohost BL Murray.

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