Water From Oil

February 26, 2010 10:10 AM

Visit Richard and Troy Seaworth and the conversation quickly turns to water issues. The father and son grow corn, wheat, sugar beets and edible beans near Wellington, Colo., where increasing population and frequent drought make water a contentious matter.

State law requires irrigators and land developers to replenish the aquifer with the amount of water they used. That gets tricky. The Seaworths, who would also like to build a housing development, are doing it in a unique way with a partnership formed with a nearby oil field run by Wellington Operating Company.

The partners built a $1.4 million water purification plant known as Wellington Water Works, or 3W, to clean excess water generated in pumping oil from the ground. The water is then pumped back into the ground, helping the Seaworths meet state requirements for augmenting the aquifer.

The Wellington Oil Field, discovered in 1923, still has most of its oil left 4,000' to 5,000' below the surface. It has 36 wells but was operating at far less than capacity.

"They had all but 12 of the wells shut down because they couldn't get rid of the water. These wells pump 98% water and 2% oil. We made a deal where we would take that water from them,” Richard Seaworth says.

Simple as it sounds, the project took nearly a decade to put together amid considerable opposition. The Cache la Poudre Water Users Association, named after the nearby river, hustled to protect its members' water rights. The association includes cities, such as Fort Collins and Greeley, along with irrigation companies and Anheuser-Busch, which operates a nearby brewery. Some local farmers also objected, saying they wanted to protect their groundwater.

The Seaworths and the oil company, however, said the water from the oil field is nontributary, meaning that it has nothing to do with water rights along the river.

"State law says water in streams belongs to the people of Colorado, but this is nontributary water. It never was a tributary to any creek. That gives us control of the water.

It is not part of the water rights system,” Seaworth says.

"We would have had to build four new injection wells at $2 million apiece to accomplish what we're doing with this oil field water. Getting augmentation water is a very expensive project,” he adds.

In the first 14 months of operation, the 3W plant pumped and cleaned 28 million gallons of water. "On an acre-foot basis, that's not a lot of water. That water can be used many times until we use it to extinction. It is totally consumable. It is not like irrigation water,” Seaworth says.

After being separated from the oil, the water filters through ground walnut shells to remove oil particles. Then, it goes to a pond, where it soaks through gravel into the small Box Elder aquifer 60' below the surface. From there, it eventually makes its way to the North Poudre River.

"Since we started this, water quality in the aquifer has gotten better. Five monitoring wells are tested monthly. This should wind up being good for everybody. We're still working the kinks out, but we're pretty comfortable with it now,” Seaworth says.

"It's been quite a project, though. We've been to college on this one,” he adds.

The water situation on the Northern Front Range grows more complex all the time. Seaworth says it is clear that the area badly needs more reservoir storage, but environmental groups refuse to allow it. "If you don't have much water, you have to figure out ways to compensate,” he says.

You can e-mail Charles Johnson at cjohnson@farmjournal.com.

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