Fort Collins, Colo. — For the first time, Colorado residents, regulators and other stakeholders have access to water quality information gathered in real-time at oil and natural gas well sites in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. Colorado State University researchers unveiled the Colorado Water Watch, a monitoring system that collects groundwater quality data from oil and natural gas sites and uploads the information every hour to a CSU-run website.

“This is a tool to provide the public and others with information about water quality at oil and natural gas sites in Colorado so they can make informed decisions about the impacts of fracking and development of energy resources,” said Ken Carlson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who is leading the project.

Sensors are placed at various depths – from 40 to 400 feet – to monitor for surface spills, contaminants in the aquifer and other groundwater sources.

Carlson and his team spent the past 18 months developing the sensor system, determining wells to be monitored, building algorithms to crunch the data collected at each site and constructing a website to display easy-to-understand information.

They believe Colorado Water Watch is the first system of its kind in the country. “We don’t know of anyone else in the country who is collecting real-time data from groundwater wells in proximity to oil and natural gas operations and sharing it with the public,” Carlson said.

Until now, most of the publicly available water quality data has come from samples taken periodically by operators or regulators. In Colorado, for example, water samples are collected at a proposed site before a well is drilled, six to 12 months after it is in operation and five years after production begins. The Water Watch will fill in the gaps and act as an early warning system.

Professor Ken Carlson talks with Asma Hanif, a research associate, and Jihee Son, a post-doctoral student, both of whom are members of the Colorado Water Watch research team.

“Our data is designed to complement the information that is already being collected by the state,” he said. “It’s not as detailed. We are really monitoring for changes in quality that could be due to any activity in the watershed, including oil and natural gas operations, agriculture, other industrial activity and even urban runoff. If the advanced anomaly detection algorithms detect a change, detailed analysis will be done to understand what caused the alert.”

Carlson and former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, director of CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy, proposed the idea to the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Noble Energy as a way to provide the public with more information about an increasingly controversial topic.

“The public debate about the impact of fracking and oil and natural gas development on water supplies has, at times, been divisive and contentious in Colorado and around the nation,” said Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. “Part of that is due to the lack of independent data available to the public. Often, the public believes they do not have enough information to make informed decisions. We hope the Colorado Water Watch will provide the type of real-time data that can alleviate that concern.”

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are partially funding the project and have representatives on the steering committee. Other steering committee members include representatives from Noble Energy, which has provided funding and access to its oil and natural gas sites, Western Resources Advocates, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA).

"Noble Energy is committed to safely and responsibly finding and producing oil and natural gas resources,” said Dan Kelly, vice president for regional planning and strategy for Noble Energy. “Colorado Water Watch is a breakthrough in water monitoring. We are now able to provide a much higher level of transparency to our operations that ensures our wells are engineered and constructed in a safe and beneficial manner. We are proud to support CSU on this initiative to provide Colorado with access to information about oil and natural gas development as we work together to deliver the energy we need while protecting the environment we value.”

Ritter said the CSU team wanted to include as many stakeholders as possible on the Colorado Water Watch steering committee to ensure all sides had a voice and understood how the data was collected and displayed.

“CSU’s role in oil and natural gas development has been to conduct research and collect data regarding a variety of extraction and production issues and to be an honest broker of information and data among the various stakeholders,” he said. “This project reflects that belief.”