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The Depths of Hydraulic Fracturing and Accompanying Water Use across the United States

Unconventional oil and gas extraction using a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has transformed natural gas and oil production in North America and raised public concern about its intense water use and potential hazards, including drinking-water contamination. Such extraction is thought to pose no safety concerns for drinking water if it occurs many hundreds of meters to kilometers underground, yet no comprehensive analysis of hydraulic fracturing depths existed until publication of a new article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Based on reports of fracturing depths and water use at 44,000 wells in the United States between 2010 and 2013, the analysis finds the average fracturing depth was 8,300 feet and the average water use was 2,400,000 gallons per well. Many of these wells (6,900 or 16 percent) were fractured less than a mile from the surface; 2,600 wells (6 percent) were fractured above 3,000 feet. Because hydraulic fractures can propagate 2,000 feet upward, the analysis indicates that shallow wells may warrant special safeguards, including a mandatory registry of well locations, full chemical disclosure, and, where horizontal drilling is used, predrilling water testing to a radius 1,000 feet beyond a well’s greatest lateral extent.

Authors: Robert B. Jackson, Ella R. Lowry, Amy Pickle, Mary Kang, Dominic DiGiulio, and Kaiguang Zha

 

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Journal Articles

Reservoir Sedimentation and Storage Capacity in the United States: Management Needs for the 21st Century

The United States federal government invested significant resources to build dams in the mid-twentieth century to increase water storage capacity nationwide; while only 5% of the dams in the United States are federally owned, they account for 61% of the total national storage capacity. Society is increasingly dependent on reservoir storage capacity due to increased water demand, increased population growth on floodplains protected by flood control dams, or increased demand on hydropower as a critical part of the electricity grid. Simultaneously, reservoir sedimentation diminishes storage capacity. Thus, there is a persistent chronic loss of the very resource upon which many aspects of modern society depend. Not measuring, assessing, and managing this resource undervalues it, and also perpetuates ignorance of threats to existing beneficiaries as well as obscuring opportunities for additional benefits. In order to most efficiently use the nation’s increasingly scarce reservoir storage capacity, the authors propose three modest actions for the hydraulic engineering community in the Journal of Hydraulic Engineering: expand nationwide reservoir sedementation surveys, supplement RESSED with initial planned sedimentation rates, and share responsibility for building reservoir sedimentation knowledge. 

Author(s): Charles Podolak, Martin Doyle

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Innovating for a Sustainable and Resilient Water Future: A Report from the 2014 Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum

Water crises are not the outcome of climate change, population growth, new con­taminants, or financial constraints but of the convergence of these challenges combined with the realities of undervalued water, policies that preserve the status quo, and under-financed and degraded water systems. To address the urgent need for infrastructure upgrades and resilience building in U.S. water systems as well as the need for leadership and synergistic action in the space, the Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum in May 2014 brought together water experts with diverse knowledge—from finance and policy to technology and ecosystems. This report captures ideas and sentiments expressed during the forum. The report concludes with five priorities for near-term action: (1) disseminating innovations developed by leading utilities to smaller utilities, (2) strengthening water sector leadership and innovation for climate change resilience, (3) generating awareness about the value of water, (4) facilitating data integration to improve water management, and (5) addressing federal-state-local tensions in water resource management. All these challenges represent nascent opportunities for increasing water sustainability—but they cannot be addressed by a single sector of the water industry, a single layer of government, or a single type of investor. Synergetic approaches are needed to develop truly novel solutions.

 

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Why Water Markets Are Not Quick Fixes for Droughts in the Western United States

Because of the peculiar nature of water rights, we should look to market-based transactions as an economically efficient way to reallocate scarce water resources. Nevertheless, because of the need to untangle the hydrologic interconnectedness of water rights and the institutional connectedness of irrigators and delivery institutions in the West, transfers of water will always be expensive and time consuming. Whether municipalities purchase water from farmers and thus bear the transaction costs directly, or the private sector purchases agricultural water, bears the associated risk and transaction costs, and sells it on to municipalities, end users will inevitably pay higher prices for water. Droughts can focus public attention on the value of water and potentially increase willingness-to-pay prices that reflect the transaction costs of tangled western water markets.

Authors: Charles J.P. Podolak and Martin Doyle

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Water

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Western

Working Papers

Optimizing the Scale of Markets for Water Quality Trading

Allowing polluters to buy, sell or trade water-quality credits could significantly reduce pollution in river basins and estuaries faster and at a lower cost than requiring facilities to meet compliance costs on their own, a new Duke University led study finds. The scale and type of the trading programs, though critical, may matter less than just getting them started. The analysis in the journal Water Resources Research shows that water-quality trading of any kind can significantly lower the costs of achieving Clean Water Act goals.

Author(s): Martin Doyle, Lauren Patterson, Yanyou Chen, Kurt Schnier, and Andrew Yates

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Journal Articles

Conditional Water Rights in the Western United States: Introducing Uncertainty to Prior Appropriation?

In the prior-appropriation water rights regimes that prevail in the arid western United States, claims to annually variable surface water flows are fulfilled on the basis of the order of their establishment. The two-step process used to establish an appropriative water right in all 17 conterminous western states creates a temporary phase, or conditional water right, that has a priority date but no actual water use. This article reviews the legal basis for these conditional water rights and demonstrates the potential uncertainty they introduce to current water users. It then presents a complete census of conditional water rights (amounts, ages, and uses) in Colorado. At the end of 2012, conditional water rights in Colorado (some over 90 years old) were equal to 61% of the perfected water rights. Many of the controversial conditional water rights in Colorado have been associated with unconventional oil production in the northwestern portion of the state; however, conditional water rights are ubiquitous across the state and across many use types. In several basins, their existence can introduce uncertainty to some of the most senior water rights holders. Nevertheless, in most of the state, the effects of conditional water rights are restricted to a relatively junior class of water users. This work quantifies for the first time the result, in one state, of a peculiar aspect of water law common across all western prior-appropriation states.

Author(s): Charles J.P. Podolak and Martin Doyle

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Journal Articles

The Effect of Non-Fluoride Factors on Risk of Dental Fluorosis: Evidence from Rural Populations of the Main Ethiopian Rift

Elevated levels of fluoride in drinking water is a well-recognized risk factor of dental fluorosis. In this study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, authors found flouride to be strongly associated with dental fluorosis in a sample of over 1000 individuals living in several rural communities in the Ethiopia. Age, sex, SSSF, and milk consumption were found to correlate with dental fluorosis outcomes, both as independent factors and through modification of the effects of flouride. In addition, several other elements in water were significantly associated with dental health in the study area, suggesting the possibility that dental fluorosis may be related to multiple contaminant exposures. Additional research is warranted to more effectively isolate these effects, and to understand the mechanisms by which they operate.

Author (s): Julia Kravchenko, Tewodros Rango, Igor Akushevich, Behailu Atlaw, Peter G. McCornick, R. Brittany Merola, Christopher Paul, Erika Weinthal, Courtney Harrison, Avner Vengosh, Marc Jeuland

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Climate and Direct Human Contributions to Changes in Mean Annual Streamflow in the South Atlantic, USA

Streamflow responds to changing climate patterns as well as human modifications within a basin. Understanding the contribution of these different drivers to changes in streamflow provides important information regarding how to effectively and efficiently address and anticipate changes in water availability. In this study, published in the journal Water Resources Research, authors used Budyko curves to ascribe changes in streamflow due to climate and human factors between two time periods in both natural and human-modified basins in the South Atlantic. They found climate contributed to increased streamflow (average of 14%) in the South Atlantic since the 1970s. Human factors varied between basins and either amplified or minimized the effect of climate on streamflow. Human impacts were equivalent to, or greater than, climate impacts in 27% of our basins. 

Author (s): Lauren Patterson, Brian Lutz, Martin Doyle

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Characterization of Drought in the South Atlantic, United States

In this Journal of the American Water Resources Association article, authors aim to characterize drought in the South Atlantic and to understand whether drought has become more severe in this region over time using monthly streamflow to characterize hydrological drought. Significant changes in drought characteristics were tested with Mann-Kendall over three periods: 1930-2010, 1930-1969, and 1970-2010. Authors show that 71% of drought events were shorter than six months, while 7% were multiyear events. There was little evidence of trends in drought characteristics to support the claim of drought becoming more severe in the South Atlantic over the 20th Century. The one exception was a significant increase in the joint probability of nearby basins being simultaneously in drought conditions in the southern portion of the study area from 1970 to 2010. While drought characteristics have changed little through time, decreasing average streamflow in non drought periods, coupled with increasing water demand, provide the context within which recent multiyear drought events have produced significant stress on existing water infrastructure.

Author(s): Lauren Patterson, Brian Lutz, and Martin Doyle

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Climate Change, Foreign Assistance, and Development: What Future for Ethiopia?

Alongside the persistent challenges of poverty and rural subsistence, many low-income countries such as Ethiopia face new problems brought by climate change and surging global economic activities. This paper by Duke University researchers examines the combined impacts of global climate change and the changing nature of donor assistance in Africa on economic development broadly and food security through the example of Ethiopia.

Author(s): Christopher Paul, Erika Weinthal, Courtney Harrison

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