Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2015DC169B

Does hydraulic fracturing pose a threat to DCs water supply? A field and modeling study.

Institute: District of Columbia
Year Established: 2015 Start Date: 2015-03-01 End Date: 2016-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $9,955 Total Non-Federal Funds: $24,588

Principal Investigators: Karen Knee

Abstract: The goal of this project is to assess how hydraulic fracturing (fracking) could affect dissolved metal concentrations and other water quality parameters in Washington, DCs water source, the Potomac River. The fracking process involves injecting fluids into shale plays in order to fracture them and release the oil and gas trapped within. Shale plays may contain higher levels of heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive elements than rocks at the surface that are normally in contact with surface and groundwater. Additionally, fracking fluids may be re-used many times and become very saline, increasing the solubility and mobility of some elements. A significant fraction of the fluid used in fracking returns to the surface to be recycled, stored, or disposed of. This is known as flowback water or produced water. If it comes in contact with aquifers, streams or rivers, it could contaminate these water bodies. Although anecdotal evidence of surface and groundwater pollution exists and a few studies have documented specific impacts on surface or groundwater, the potential threat that fracking may pose to the water sources of major metropolitan areas including DC has not been investigated scientifically. The need for such scientific study is urgent. Fracking in the Marcellus Shale, which underlies much of the Potomac Rivers watershed, has increased dramatically over the last decade, and is now prevalent throughout the parts of the watershed that are within Virginia and West Virginia. Because Maryland currently has a moratorium on fracking, no fracking has yet occurred in the parts of the watershed in that state. The proposed study will take advantage of this serendipitous experimental setup to explore how water quality, particularly concentrations of dissolved metals and the naturally occurring radioactive elements radium and radon, are correlated with fracking activity. With a graduate student assistant, I will sample water from 20 tributaries of the Potomac in Maryland and 40 in Virginia and West Virginia with a range of fracking activity in their watersheds. Intensity of fracking activity will be quantified based on how many (1) unconventional oil and gas wells and (2) produced water storage or disposal sites are located upstream in the watershed; these data are publically available from state governments and other sources. Geographic analysis will be conducted using ArcGIS. Basic water quality parameters (dissolved oxygen, pH, conductivity, turbidity, temperature) will be measured in situ with portable instruments and samples for radon, radium, nutrient and dissolved metal analysis will be collected in the field and transported to American University, where I will perform the analysis using standard methods on equipment owned by the Environmental Science and Chemistry departments. The final component of the project will be to use the results of field and lab analysis, combined with freely available hydrologic data, to construct a simple model of how fracking in the Potomacs watershed may influence pollutant concentrations and loadings at Great Falls, where the District of Columbia obtains its drinking water. This project will provide the DC government, particularly DC Water, with information that is essential to understand and respond appropriately to the threat that fracking may pose to the quality of DCs water source. In addition to preparing an article for publication in a scientific journal, I will create a comprehensive, non-technical report to be distributed for free to all interested stakeholders and give a lecture about my results that is free and open to the public. I will also be available to discuss with DC officials and stakeholders how the results can be applied to safeguard the Districts water source.