Coal Bed Methane: A Challenge to Riparian Stewardship?


by Jenifer Morrissey


A Privilege
I consider it a privilege to live along a perennial stream in Colorado. With an estimated 4.25 million people in the state, and only 107,403 miles of streams and rivers, having a mile of South Trujillo Creek running through our place makes it a special place to live indeed.

I enjoy watching how the creek changes from day to day and season to season. There are no dams or diversions above us, so I feel I’m learning from and about a natural stream. Right now, in the dead of winter, I’m fascinated by how the ice changes form. I often gauge the temperature by the amount, thickness, and density of the ice. During the spring, I enjoy watching the runoff. When the runoff begins, when it ends, and its volume gives me a feel for the snow pack on the Spanish Peaks above us. During the summer I’m fascinated by changes in volume from thunderstorms. Sometimes the creek will rise when we haven’t had any precipitation here, indicating a storm passed over somewhere upstream. This last summer I watched parts of the creek go dry for the first time, a very sobering experience. During the fall I notice how the water level changes as ice freezes and thaws and rain and snow add to the volume.

The Watershed
Since moving to this place three years ago, I have been educating myself about riparian stewardship. We have significant cottonwood stands in our riparian forest which I value highly. I have learned that their future could be significantly impacted by my stewardship. How I graze and log this place will also impact the water quality of the creek.

 Photo 1
Figure 1: South Trujillo Canyon

Trujillo Creek flows into the Apishapa River, a tributary of the Arkansas. Most of Trujillo Canyon is similar to our place, with a noticeable riparian area flanked by pastures and hay meadows. It seems, however, that our canyon may be unique. The Spanish Peaks-Purgatoire River Soil Conservation District hopes to establish a PL-566 Small Watershed Program here. They have “identified the Apishapa River Watershed as an area where excessive sheet, rill and gully erosion are taking place due to overgrazed rangeland, poor condition woodlands, and inefficient irrigation systems. As a result wildlife habitat has declined and water quality is now an issue due to the heavy sediment load and salinity.” According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, little recent data exists on water quality for the Apishapa, contributing to the need for the watershed program. I have been told it will be one to two years before the program is funded.

Coal Bed Methane
For the past six months, much of my free time has been spent learning about coal bed methane (CBM) development. Methane is the primary constituent of natural gas. We are in the Raton Basin, and the current high prices for natural gas are encouraging development of the methane found in the coal beds of the Vermejo and Raton Formations. While there are no methane wells in Trujillo Canyon yet, there are several in operation in the canyon to the north, which also drains to the Apishapa.

To get the methane out of the coal beds, water must first be extracted from the aquifers that are also found in the coal beds. For much of the first years of a coal bed methane well’s life, more water is pumped than gas. During the first eleven months of 2000, according to statistics available from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), there were 625 coal bed methane wells producing in Las Animas County, and the amount of water produced was over 1.1 billion gallons. On average, each well was producing enough water for six families to use for a year. Studies by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the San Juan Basin of southwestern Colorado suggest that current CBM extraction techniques there “might be draining aquifers and even surface water.” The extraction techniques in the San Juan Basin are similar to those used here, though the geology is different.

Two of the approved methods for disposal of produced water are road spreading and discharge to state waters. Quality standards apply to both methods. Discharging produced water to state waters essentially means that the water is discharged into natural drainages. Produced water may only be discharged to state waters if a discharge permit is obtained from the state Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division.

As I contemplate the stewardship of the riparian area here, I find myself faced by more unknowns than usual. Most of the current data on CBM development is anecdotal. Public domain research raises more questions than it answers. Citizens who have spoken publicly are for the most part concerned. I am concerned as well.

CBM development could have significant impacts that might hinder any protective measures I could take. The springs that feed Trujillo Creek could go dry from the extraction of water from the coal beds, reducing the creek flow, especially in periods of naturally low water. Disposal of produced water via either road spreading or surface discharge could result in changes in water quality and increased erosion and sediment loads.

The U.S. Geological Survey studied groundwater hydrology in the Raton Basin in the early 1980’s before the coal bed methane boom. The Colorado Geological Survey has also studied the Raton Basin. Documents from both agencies suggest that there are connections between the aquifers in the coal beds and surface water. Despite nearly a decade of CBM development here, only now are agencies beginning to explore the impacts that extracting water from those aquifers might have on the water resources of our region. If there are connections between those aquifers and surface springs, riparian areas could be impacted by reduced flows due to depleted groundwater.

Discharged water may be subjected to water quality testing. However, not all quality parameters are necessarily tested. In Wyoming, the sodium adsorption ratio (SAR) has been found to be a significant quality parameter, but many coal bed methane wells have been permitted without SAR measurements being taken. SAR affects how water interacts with soils, and research indicates that CBM produced water, if used for irrigation on certain soil types, could result in decreased plant productivity. I am hopeful that similar research will be undertaken in the Raton Basin to ensure that the SAR of produced water will not adversely affect our soils, our base water quality, and our riparian areas. Other water quality parameters, such as nitrate, nitrite, chlorides, and total dissolved solids, are also issues with water produced by CBM development. COGCC has conducted a single baseline water quality test here. I wonder if these parameters, especially nitrate and nitrite, vary with the grazing season, and if a single base line test is sufficient to monitor how produced water impacts surface water resources. On a watershed level, we have little recent baseline quality data with which to assess changes due to CBM development.

Another area of concern is increased sediment load. Our soils are highly erodible, and surface discharge of produced water could add sediment to Trujillo Creek. Because our canyon is narrow, the road follows the creek closely in most places. CBM development brings increased traffic, which is likely to generate dust on our dirt roads and which could possibly increase creek turbidity. If produced water is discharged via road spreading, it also seems possible that the creek could be adversely impacted. Given that the Soil Conservation District has already identified sediment load as an issue in the watershed, how carefully produced water is discharged will be important to monitor to ensure appropriate stewardship of our riparian areas.

 Photo 2
Figure 2: South Fork Trujillo Creek

I have been slow to make changes here that might adversely impact the health of the riparian area. However, with development of coal bed methane resources due in our canyon in the next few years, my own go-slow approach is challenged by market forces beyond my control. The demand for natural gas continues to grow, paced to some extent by the false belief that it has few adverse impacts on the environment. Colorado law encourages fuel development, and taking protective measures is difficult when the potential impacts are unknown.

I now find myself asking what does it mean to steward this riparian area in the face of CBM development? Sometimes I get quite discouraged. Fortunately, I am often reminded that I am not alone in my concerns. And each day when I visit the creek, I am reminded of the privilege it is to live here. That privilege motivates me to face the uncertainty and to continue to educate myself about stewarding this special place.

If you have any information that might assist the author in stewarding riparian areas in the face of coal bed methane development, please contact her at            (719) 941-4150       or