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Drought Fact Check: How Much Does Fracking Really Use?

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Pumpjack | Photo: ©

Whenever a huge problem hits the news for which we all share at least some responsibility, you can bet there will be a flurry of talk about who the "real villain" is. The state's record drought is no exception.

Since Governor Jerry Brown last week released his Executive Order mandating a 25 percent cut, a bewildering variety of claims and figures have been flying around social media. Some of those claims are more accurate than others, but even some of the accurate claims can be misleading in the wrong context.

The thing about California's water use is that the numbers overall are enormously big, so even if something uses a tiny percentage of the state's water, it can sound like it's a big reason for the state's water shortage. And there's no better example than fracking.

Before I dive into the numbers, a quick preface. Keep in mind that I'm not downplaying the other potential risks of fracking here. Anti-fracking activists make an excellent case that fracking fluids contaminate groundwater, and the whole idea of increasing the amount of fossil fuels we extract from the ground and burn -- thus damaging the earth's climate even further, and making California droughts even worse -- seems counterproductive to say the least.

But that doesn't mean it's okay to give the wrong impression of fracking's actual water use. If we don't have a truly accurate picture of where we really use water, we'd won't get far in solving water issues. Here's an example of the kind of information that's been going around, this image from the Facebook group US Uncut:

We'll cover other issues we have with this graphic later in the series | Image: US Uncut

There are a number of issues with the way this image portrays drought-related statistics, not the least of which is comparing statewide annual consumption of industrial processes with a single flush of a single toilet -- or for that matter, implying that ultra-low water use toilets are being restricted.

But the graphic is a good example of the kind of comment that's been flying around the Internet in the last couple weeks, much of it coming from folks who seem to resent being asked to cut down their own water use while other, larger water users out there seem to be using the stuff incredibly wastefully.

US Uncut doesn't provide a source for its claim that fracking uses 70 million gallons of water in California each year, but it likely came from recent reports that the state's fracked oil and gas wells used 214 acre-feet of water in 2014, according to state regulators. An acre-foot is a standard measure of water in California and the West, enough water to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot. An acre-foot is 325,851.429 gallons, and that means (I've done the math for you), according to those recent reports, the 214 acre-feet of water used translates to about 69.73 million gallons of water were used to frack oil and gas wells.

Sounds like a lot, right? How could nearly 70 million gallons not be a lot of water? It's a lot of water compared to things we're used to in our personal lives -- washing machines, swimming pools, and so forth -- but not in the big picture. The water used for fracking in 2014 is just .00069 percent of California's total water consumption. Or put another way: If all the water used by California society in 2014 was represented by a bank account totaling $10,000, the amount we spent on fracking last year was just under seven cents. Puts those 214 acre-feet in perspective, no?

Meanwhile, in what the state considers a normal water year -- like the precipitous 2010 -- Californians benefit from the use of 41.1 million acre-feet. About 8 million acre-feet of that was used in urban settings, including households, factories, and commercial settings. The rest, more than 33 million acre-feet was used to irrigate crops. Fracking, with its 214 acre-feet, doesn't even make the graph.

By comparison, the DWR estimates that the typical California household loses about 30.7 gallons per day to leaky pipes and fixtures, which if you multiply by California's 12.5 million households (as of the 2010 Census) comes out to more than 431,000 acre-feet completely wasted each year, and that's wastage we could end right now.

Or to consider the toilets mentioned in US Uncut's graphic: DWR puts the average household's toilet flushing use at 37.31 gallons per day, which comes to 524,755 acre-feet per year, when accounting for all households.

That means residential toilets actually use almost 2,500 times as much water as fracking does, and those leaks use well over 2,000 times the water fracking does.

And to go back to fracking's 214 acre-feet of water, not all of that was fresh water. At least some of the water used in fracking is so-called "produced water," which comes out of the ground during drilling and isn't suitable for drinking or irrigation.

Again, that's not to say that fracking isn't a serious environmental concern: it's just not using enough freshwater this year to be a major factor in the drought. If the drought continues long enough that we're forced to tap even more of the state's groundwater, then fracking and its risk of groundwater contamination might well become more of a contributor to that year's drought. But that's about the water the process potentially despoils, not the water it uses.

There's one other important point to consider. Let's say the numbers were different, and it turned out fracking was actually a major contributor to the state's water use. Does that mean we householders would be justified if we pointed our fingers at the oil and gas industry as the real culprits and kept watering our lawns? Not at all. Changing fracking practices, or indeed any large industrial or commercial use of water, can take years as regulations are developed, legislation is passed, and timelines are phased in. It might make a difference in 2025; it won't make a difference this year. What will make a difference this year is all Californians taking responsibility and making changes in our own lives: the leaky pipes, the toilet flushing, the lawn watering. That will save water now when the fish need it.

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