The amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing is increasing across the nation, with the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in neighboring Ohio and West Virginia among the most active.
New findings from the U.S. Geological Survey show the average horizontal gas well consumed more than 5 million gallons of water in 2014, up from around 177,000 gallons in 2000.
While the deep well boom hasn't reached Kentucky yet, conservationists are urging the state to continue updating its regulations to address concerns over high-volume hydraulic fracking.
"Trying to get out in front of this, so that the operator identifies the method that they'll use to protect surface and ground waters from contamination,” says Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council. “We need to be prepared."
The first step came earlier this year when the Kentucky Legislature added before-and-after water sampling at hydraulic fracking sites to the state's oil and gas regulations.
FitzGerald says Kentucky is currently on the low end of the water-use spectrum, because all the fracking so far has been on shallower formations.
"And because of that, you're dealing with a matter of thousands of gallons rather than hundreds of thousands of gallons,” he explains. “So, the wastewater management issues are much smaller."
That could be changing, however. Companies are scrambling to see if Kentucky has the volumes of oil and gas needed to make deep-well drilling worthwhile. The state has issued two production permits on the Rogersville Shale in eastern Kentucky.
In neighboring Ohio, Ted Auch, Great Lakes Program coordinator for the FracTracker Alliance, isn't surprised by the federal report on the rapid rise of water use.
His group's research indicates fracking has used up to 7 percent of the available water from the Muskingum Watershed, and Auch says it's likely to exceed 10 percent in the next two years.
"In good years when it's raining cats and dogs like it is right now, there is excess water,” he points out. “But that excess water buffers that watershed against drought in subsequent years. If you keep pulling water out and putting it down in the geology underneath, you are really compromising the integrity of that watershed."
Some in the oil and gas industry say fracking uses significantly less water than many other processes, and that companies are increasingly recycling and reusing water.