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Published August 27 2012

Forum editorial: A warning about oil and water

North Dakota policymakers and regulators should pay attention to words of caution regarding escalating water demand in the state’s Oil Patch. Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who knows as much about oil and water as anyone in the Legislature, is advocating more monitoring and protection for both surface water and groundwater. Skarphol is on to something.

The increase in demand because of oil and gas production, in addition to continuing demand from farming and ranching, is unprecedented in the state’s history. As a result, water has become a very profitable commodity, prompting extraordinary growth in the privatization of the resource. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being reaped from the state’s water resource. Some of the water is in private ownership; some of it is part of the public trust.

Like all western water law, North Dakota’s management of water is a byzantine nightmare of federal, state and local jurisdictions. It’s ready-made for passing the buck or, at least, settling for a permit and monitoring system that relies on the honor system and self-reporting. When demand for water is relatively low and steady, such a system might be acceptable, even if a little cheating goes on. But when water is becoming more precious than oil because of energy development, the system can’t possibly monitor legitimate users, let alone cheaters. Officials at the State Water Commission have conceded as mush.

To further complicate the water scene, permits traditionally granted for crops and livestock are being converted to industrial-use permits for oil and gas development. A lot more water is needed for an oil well than is needed for a feedlot.

Rep. Skarphol is not opposed to oil development. He’s involved in the oil business himself. But his instincts about the value of water are sound. He was the primary mover for a metering system that easily passed the 2011 Legislature. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Jack Dalrymple because, he said, the idea was “unworkable” and could become too costly over time.

Which raises the questions:

How are water meters – common, reliable technology – unworkable?

How can it ever be too costly to monitor and protect the state’s water resources?

Oil and gas development is changing the state’s financial and regulatory landscape. The state has a way to go to catch up. The two-part water/oil series (Sunday and Monday) by Forum reporter Patrick Springer confirms that the demand on and the threat to water supplies require much more regulatory and environmental scrutiny. Rep. Skarphol’s concerns are based on a lifetime in the west, where he has come to understand oil and water. His colleagues – and the Dalrymple administration – should listen to him.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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