GREELEY, Colo. — In this parched farming region, where the land flattens out and every drop of water is precious, another player has lined up at the spigot.
On a recent sunny afternoon, a huge cylindrical tanker truck rolled up to a red city fire hydrant and driver Jose Ofornio hopped out. With well-practiced efficiency he hooked hose to hydrant and began to fill. And fill.
"It's really bad in the mornings," Ofornio said, noting that trucks often have to wait in line for their turn. This was his third trip of the day. In less than 15 minutes, thousands of gallons of water gushed into his tank and was shuttled 50 miles to a drilling site, where it would be blasted into the ground along with sand and chemicals to free a bounty of oil and gas in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
According to the petroleum industry, most new wells in this country now use fracking to coax an average of 250 barrels of oil or 1.3 million cubic feet of natural gas from the ground per day. But that can't happen without water — about 3 million to 8 million gallons per well before extraction begins.
Last fall the Environment America Research and Policy Center estimated that at least 250 billion gallons of water had been used since 2005 in the estimated 80,000 wells in 17 states. Drought-prone Texas led the way with at least 110 billion gallons.
A study this month further alarmed environmentalists.
Ceres, a Boston-based nonprofit advocacy group that promotes sustainability to business leaders, reported that in the heavily drilled Permian Basin in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico, 87% of the wells were in high or extremely high water-stress areas, meaning the vast majority of available water was already allocated. And that basin overlaps the nation's most important agricultural water supply, the Ogallala aquifer, yet water use for fracking there is forecast to double by 2020.
But drilling booms on. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Greeley, smack in the heart of Weld County — thought to have more oil and gas wells than any county in the nation, with just over 21,000. Within Greeley's city limits alone there are 431.
The historic city of 95,000 about an hour north of Denver, along Colorado's fast-growing Front Range, has entered into a purchase agreement with oil and gas companies to sell off some of its surplus water to satisfy the thirsty fracking business, even though parts of the West are reeling from drought. Thirty-five hydrants have been set aside, fixed with meters to keep tabs.
In some places, fracking relies on brackish or recycled water, but in Greeley it is all fresh. And the oil and gas companies that have set up shop here are willing to pay dearly for it — 100 times more than farmers do. In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Greeley pocketed just over $4 million.
"It's an unexpected cash inflow," said Jon Monson, the city's water and sewer director. He also noted that even though the region is very dry, so far this year conditions aren't bad enough to trigger an official drought designation, which would prompt tightening for everyone.
As fracking escalated in Weld County over the last few years, so did the amount of water bought from Greeley. In 2007, the city sold 636 acre-feet, or 207 million gallons of water, to oil and gas firms. By 2012 that number had risen to 513 million gallons, Monson said.
He noted that the oil and gas companies were not buying the actual rights to the city's water nor taking away from residents or farmers, many of whom already own individual water rights. Each year the city gets a varying allocation from its water rights. In 2012 that totaled 12 billion gallons.
Though some residents might balk that they are under mandatory restrictions as surplus water is being sold, Monson said the restrictions had been in place for more than a century, dating to the city's earliest days.
"I'm not creating a water supply for oil and gas," he said.
Larry Hoozee, a 61-year-old farmer and rancher in Weld County, isn't sure what to think. He runs about 300 cattle on 3,000 acres and grows wheat and hay. Two decades ago he sunk a well nearly 1,000 feet deep to tap water for his operation, and it's always provided plenty. Now, as drilling continues to grow in his county, he wonders whether there will be enough water to go around.
"I just don't know how big that pool of water is down there," he said.
In southeastern Colorado, which has been in drought's grip since 2010, rancher Leslie Watts, 64, said some of his neighbors were considering selling their water rights directly to the oil and gas companies operating nearby.
"People I know have the opportunity to sell their water rather than grow a crop in marginal conditions. It's all about the dollar," Watts said. "Some would say that's greed. Some would say it's survival."
Doug Flanders, director of policy for the Colorado Oil and Gas Assn., an industry trade group, said the amount of water being used annually by drilling operations statewide was 0.08%, or roughly 6.5 billion gallons — a tiny fraction compared with other users, especially agriculture, which needs about 85%. But he acknowledged that water use by the industry was higher in heavy drilling areas. In Weld County, he said, it is about 2%.