Two months ago a story started ‘leaking’ out of Western Colorado about a fracked-gas pipeline break—loaded with cancer-causing benzene—with fluids heading toward and eventually into Parachute Creek which is a tributary to the Colorado River. As water wells close to the Creek started testing positive for benzene, and then as the Creek itself tested positive for benzene above drinking water standards, the news media started telling a story of how the Colorado River—a drinking water source for 35 million people across the Southwest U.S.—was threatened. As of this writing the leak is still not cleaned up and the creek is still testing positive for benzene.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
This one leak may be the tip of the iceberg for fracking impacts in the Colorado River basin.
Across the Colorado River basin in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and in Southern California, a huge boom in natural gas and oil exploration and drilling—all using the extremely dangerous and controversial extraction method of fracking—is taking place that is increasingly imperiling water resources. Fracking has these impacts on water resources:
- Fracking uses enormous amounts of water.
- Fracking uses cancer-causing chemicals.
- “Spills and releases” of drilling and fracking fluids on the ground are commonplace during the drilling and fracking stage of each well.
- Unless wells are drilled and fracked properly, chemicals can leak into surrounding groundwater. Even when wells are drilled and fracked to the highest standards, there’s no guarantee that cement casings around wells can’t break and leak over time.
- After the drilling and fracking process, there’s no guarantee that fluids injected into the well can’t migrate up into groundwater through geological fissures and cracks.
- Millions of gallons of waste products from each fracked well are so badly poisoned with cancer-causing chemicals that the water is never purified and returned to rivers and streams, and instead is usually injected into even deeper aquifers and wells where government regulating agencies hope it stays forever.
More than a hundred thousand active oil and gas wells in the Colorado River already exist, and approximately a hundred thousand new wells—all to be fracked—are proposed. Many of these existing wells are near streams that connect to the Colorado River and some are right beside the Colorado River, and all of the proposed wells are in the same locations. Billions of gallons of toxic water and waste products have already been injected into deep disposal wells across the Colorado River basin every year, and billions more are proposed. Cancer-causing fracking chemicals are sometimes stored in tanks and open pits on the surface right beside rivers, including the Colorado River.
Here’s a quick summary of drilling and fracking activity in the Colorado River basin:
Wyoming: Wyoming has thousands of oil and gas wells in and around the Colorado River headwaters of the Green River, and is planning for thousands more. Wyoming is home to one of the most famous and controversial cases of groundwater contamination due to fracking and drilling, in Pavillion in the southwestern part of the state, and is also known to have worse drilling-related air quality than Los Angeles. Drilling has decimated the landscape in the Green River valley, seriously impacting water runoff and wildlife habitat.
Colorado: Colorado’s growing population has already stretched water supplies thin, but fracking is on track to help drain the last legally allowed drops of water out of the Colorado River’s headwaters. Colorado currently has more than 40,000 active oil and gas wells, and is planning for up to 100,000—although many of those are on the Front Range, Colorado River water is piped under and across the Continental Divide to serve those wells, as well as to serve the thousands of wells in the Western part of the state in the Colorado River basin. About 60 percent of all waste is injected into deep disposal wells, and thousands of “spills and releases” have impacted groundwater and surface water throughout the state. Two Colorado cities have banned fracking and over a dozen have placed a moratorium on fracking.
Utah: All of the same drilling and fracking chaos in Colorado and Wyoming has also occurred in Utah which has been on a “fracking frenzy,” with plans for thousands of more wells, many in the Colorado River basin, and some near and right beside the Colorado River on vast swaths of publicly owned land. Some of the ground-breaking science around climate-change causing methane leakage has occurred in Utah which currently has 11,000 producing oil and gas wells statewide.
New Mexico: New Mexico has more than 50,000 oil and gas wells and is drilling about 1,500 new wells per year, most of them fracked and the majority of which are in the Colorado River basin in northwest New Mexico. Industry spokespeople say New Mexico is in the “early stage of the shale play” as new hydraulic fracking technology has opened up hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for exploration and drilling. Of note, a bill was just killed in the state legislature to ban fracking, and Mora County New Mexico just recently passed a ban on fracking.
Nevada: Almost all of Nevada is outside of the Colorado River basin and there’s currently only about 1,000 active oil and gas wells in the state, so fracking is not a huge issue for Nevada as it relates to the Colorado River. However in the northern part of the state, fracking proposals are moving forward, and because Nevada is a very parched state with internal water wars between Las Vegas and areas to the north, it is unpredictable how fracking could play out.
California: California’s current and future fracking potential is huge with more than 50,000 active oil and gas wells (mostly oil) and potential for “major shale oil plays” in the Monterey Shale adding up to 28,000 new wells. Where the water will come from to frack these wells is a big question that activists and academics are already grappling with. The state legislature is considering bills to put a statewide moratorium on fracking, and environmental groups are girding for a large-scale battle. Colorado River water supplies—which are used by all of Southern California’s cities and millions of acres of farmland—will surely be used if and when California moves forward with massive fracking.
Northern Mexico: The Colorado River serves water to the Mexicali region and to northern Baja, Mexico. At this time there is no current or proposed fracking in these regions of Mexico.
So, there’s two big take-home messages from all of this, with water quantity and water quality.
Water quantity: Over the next few decades we may see 100,000 new fracked wells in the Colorado River basin or in areas like California and the Front Range of Colorado that are dependent on Colorado River water. With an estimate of up to 4 million gallons of water per well, those new frack jobs would require 400 billion gallons of water. In an average year, the total flow in the entire Colorado River system is more than ten times greater, about 5 trillion gallons of water. But more importantly, given that all of the Colorado River’s water is already allocated—the river is drained completely dry before it reaches the Gulf of California, all 5 trillion gallons diverted out—the only way large-scale fracking is going to take place is if some city or farmer that already owns Colorado River water sells their water for fracking. Stated differently, fracking is a new and additional water requirement in a system where there’s no water left, and frackers can afford pay practically any price for water and outbid cities or farms when water is for sale.
Water quality: Waste disposal and water pollution are also serious concerns, as depicted by the harbinger in Parachute Creek. With up to two hundred thousand wells, tens-of-thousands of miles of pipes, hundreds of compressor stations and dozens of large-scale processing and refining plants all in Colorado River basin, the chances of spills and accidents are increasing. Disposing of hundreds of billions of gallons of toxic waste in deep injection wells creates unknown risks too—in many ways, the disposal of fracking wastes is much like the disposal of nuclear wastes where government regulators are putting the cancer-causing waste slurry deep underground and hoping it stays there forever. Could just one of these accidents create a large-scale disaster?
When benzene was detected in Parachute Creek about four miles from where the Creek flows into the Colorado River, a spokesperson for the State of Colorado said it was “not a concern” because the increased flow in the Colorado River would dilute the benzene and make the Colorado River water safe to drink. Local citizens were not convinced and complained loudly in the media, and a downstream town on the Colorado River started testing their water for benzene which is extremely difficult to remove from groundwater once the pollution has occurred.
The Colorado River is a very thin lifeline stretching nearly 1,500 miles from Denver to San Diego uniting the entire Southwest U.S.—city, farmer and fracker alike—with one single strand of flowing water. Everything that happens on the landscape across seven states and northern Mexico eventually flows into the Colorado River, and every drop of the Colorado River eventually flows into a city faucet or a farm.
Can we really afford to let the Colorado River get fracked?
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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