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Farming or Fracking: The Battle Over Water Rights Begins

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It's going to be a long, hot summer for Colorado farmers. With snow packs lower than average for the year and a possible drought predicted, farmers along Colorado's Front Range need to buy water rights in order to irrigate their farms. But this year, there's a new bidder on the block: oil and gas companies.

At an auction for unallocated water rights this spring, companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing sites (known as fracking) were some of the top bidders in an auction that used to only be farmers.

Fracking is a process by which water is pumped into rock formations deep underground to help force out the oil and natural gas in the formations. Some scientists have raised concerns that the process could contaminate groundwater used for irrigation and drinking water.

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Colorado officials estimate that only about 0.08 percent of the total water consumed in the state goes to fracking, but it's a fast-growing share; fracking already uses more water than used by all the ski areas in Colorado for making artificial snow. Each fracking well that's drilled requires 500,000 to 5 million gallons of water to operate.

A spokesman for the water conservation district that held the water auction told the Denver Post that farmers and oil companies are on equal footing when it comes to bidding for water rights. Neither group is given preference. But it's no secret that oil companies have a lot more money to spend than the average farmer.

For example, one water service company that works with oil companies was able to pay $35 per acre-foot of water (one acre foot is about 336,000 gallons of water), which is higher than the average market price of $28.

While the percentage of water that's being used for fracking now is still small, advocacy groups are worried that we're seeing the beginning of a shift in who can afford to pay for water rights both in Colorado and all across the American west. As water becomes more and more scarce, regulators may start having to make tough decisions about whether that water goes to food or energy.

Image: Hallenser

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