4 Questions for Professor Mark Williams and the new guide for well owners who live in areas of oil and gas development

Dr. Mark WilliamsProfessor Mark Williams is the co-founder of the Colorado Water and Energy Research Center (CWERC) and co-author of the new Monitoring Water Quality In Areas of Oil and Natural Gas Development: A Guide for Water Well Users.

The guide is the first of its kind and includes detailed instructions for well owners to collect water samples and to establish a reliable baseline of their water quality and quantity. We caught up with Dr. Williams to learn more about his work and why this guide is important.

How did you get involved in the work that you do, in other words, what drew you into this field?
I’m a mountain hydrologist. I study surface/groundwater interactions. I do basic science research through INSTAAR’s Niwot Ridge Long-Term Ecological (NWT LTER) program that is funded by the National Science Foundation. The findings from our science-driven approach have many practical applications.

Here, in Colorado, we live with a legacy of approximately 20,000 abandoned mines that are actively leaking contaminants into our streams and groundwater system. Almost all of these mines are located in the mountains of Colorado. Because of my expertise, the EPA and the State of Colorado have asked for my help to help control these pollution problems at many sites in Colorado.

What inspired you to start CWERC and to develop a guide for citizens?
Unconventional oil and gas extraction has exploded in our state during the past several years. The public has many concerns about potential groundwater contamination from these activities. These concerns are perhaps best illustrated with the well-known videos and pictures of people lightning their tap water on fire. There is a lot of misinformation that the public is subjected to, from some in the oil and gas industry insisting that no domestic wells have ever been polluted by unconventional oil and gas extraction, to groups that advocate that large amounts of our underground water supply have been polluted.

CWERC websiteSo, people began calling CU-Boulder for access to unbiased information in this sea of often conflicting information. CWERC is the campus’s response to the public request for unbiased information that is presented in an understandable manner rather than scientific jargon.

The monitoring guide is an attempt to bring people peace of mind. By sampling their wells for indicator chemicals before and after nearby oil and gas extraction, a well-owner can objectively determine if there has been a change in the quality of their well water. In most cases, there won’t be a change in the quality of the well water and the well-owner can relax because there hasn’t been an impact. And, in some wells, there will be present indicator chemicals before oil and gas extraction starts because of natural sources of these indicators. So again, by having baseline data the well-owner can understand if a chemical in their well is from natural sources or correlated with oil and gas extraction.

I do want to emphasize that the well-owners guide is useful even if there is no nearby extraction of oil and gas.

Well-owners need to care and nurture their wells. This guide helps them to do so. In particular, the guide provides information about which chemicals to analyze for. It also provides a guide for interpreting the lab results. Nothing frustrates a citizen more than getting a lab report back that has weird chemicals, units and information they don’t understand, and no idea how to make sense of the results. We walk citizens through those results and provide information on concentrations that they should be concerned about and concentrations that are not a problem.

How does the guide tie to your groundwater research (past, present, and/or future projects)?
The well-monitoring guide provides excellent information on how to collect water samples from wells. I have a large project in southern and central Asia where we are trying to quantify contributions of various water types to stream and river flow and how stream and river flow may change with changes in climate.

From Himachal Pradesh, India, in the monsoon-transition zone. Credit: A. RacoviteanuLarge rivers in this area of the world–Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra–provide water security for almost 2 billion people. By analyzing stream samples, precipitation, and groundwater, we can tell how much each of these sources provide water to river flows today, and then start to figure out how that river flow may change in the future.

To accomplish these goals we are working with scientists and colleagues in partner countries such as Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan. We can give the CWERC well-owners guide to graduate students and field technicians in these countries so they can collect samples from wells for our scientific questions. The rigorous protocols for sampling that we present in our well owner’s guide work for this project’s scientific questions as well.

Tell us why putting reliable data into the hands of citizens is so important to you (whether it is data around oil and gas development or about the watersheds that are the source of our drinking water)?
Everyone agrees that we need more data. At a recent lecture on campus that was attended by about 400 people, Governor Hickenlooper stated that, “we need more data”. Data allows citizens to make informed decisions. Unbiased and scientifically accurate data will provide citizens with the information they need to understand if there is a threat from a perturbation–eg land use change or oil and gas extraction–or if, in fact, there is not a threat and they can have peace of mind.

About Mark Williams
Dr. Mark Williams is a Fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Professor of Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research interest is in the ecology of mountain areas, looking at the interaction of organisms with their environment. He has current or past research activities in many of the world’s mountain ranges, including the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada of California, the Tien Shan and Qilian Shan, China, Andes of South America, European Alps, and the Himalayas.

Professor Williams is on the core faculty of Environmental Studies and the Hydrology Program in Geography at CU-Boulder. He is the principal investigator of the Niwot Ridge Long Term Environmental Research program and a co-investigator on the research project Contribution to High Asia Runoff from Ice & Snow (CHARIS). Professor Williams is a Fulbright Scholar and was elected a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2012.

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