Potential Effects of Energy Development on Environmental Resources of the Williston Basin in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota — Water Resources

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5070-C
Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management
By: , and 



The Williston Basin has been a leading oil and gas producing area for more than 50 years. While oil production initially peaked within the Williston Basin in the mid-1980s, production rapidly increased in the mid-2000s, largely because of improved horizontal (directional) drilling and hydraulic fracturing methods. In 2012, energy development associated with the Bakken Formation was identified as a priority requiring collaboration toward improved timeliness of issuing permits for new wells combined with reasonable measures to maintain environmental quality. Shortly thereafter, the Bakken Federal Executive Group was created to address common challenges associated with energy development. The Bakken Federal Executive Group partner agencies identified a gap in current understanding of the cumulative environmental challenges attributed to energy development throughout the area, resulting in an effort to aggregate scientific data and identify additional research and information needs related to natural resources within areas of energy development in the Williston Basin. As part of this effort, water resources in the area (including groundwater; streams and rivers; and lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands) were characterized and described in terms of physical occurrence, flow characteristics, recharge, water quality, and water use. Similarly, waters produced during energy-development activities also were characterized even though these waters are not considered usable resources within the area. Groundwater resources were characterized by the major hydrogeologic units, or aquifers, identifying the units that supply most groundwater used for domestic, stock, agricultural, and industrial purposes. The groundwater characterization included other deeper hydrogeologic units in the Williston Basin that may be a useable source of water with treatment, have utility as a reservoir for reinjection of produced waters, or be a source of minerals and energy resources. A generalized groundwater budget and flow system identifying the sources of recharge (stream infiltration, precipitation, and movement [leakage] from other aquifers) and the general groundwater flow direction is included for each of the major hydrogeologic units. Rivers and streams within the Williston Basin with 10 or more years of continuous streamflow data were identified. For a subset of these sites, streamflow characteristics, including the monthly and annual mean flow, were generated to identify seasonal and interannual changes in streamflow and thus provide information on the drivers and reliability of streamflow at the seasonal or multiyear scale. Daily streamflow and annual extreme flows (peak and low flow) also were estimated for the subset of sites. The daily streamflow and annual extreme flow values provide information on short-term or extreme events that are relevant to infrastructure design and evaluating spills, leaks, or accidental discharges of water or petroleum products. Surface-water features (lakes, ponds, and wetlands) were classified using the Cowardin system and identified on the National Wetlands Inventory maps generated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The spatial distribution of the surface-water features was analyzed by State, county, and specifically in comparison to the Prairie Pothole Region. The proximity of the surface-water features to energy development infrastructure (specifically oil or gas well pads) was evaluated. It was determined that, although oil or gas wells are often near a surface-water feature, most surface-water features do not have wells nearby, with the exception of wells in the Prairie Pothole Region. Water-quality data were aggregated from two data sources: (1) the Water-Quality Portal, sponsored by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and National Water Quality Monitoring Council; and (2) a data compilation completed as part of the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment project. The Water-Quality Portal integrates publicly available water-quality data from databases maintained by the USGS, EPA, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, including water-quality data from Tribal, State, and local databases. Water-quality data for 15 commonly measured water-quality constituents were aggregated for groundwater, rivers and streams, and lakes and reservoirs. For each aggregated dataset (groundwater, rivers and streams, and lakes and reservoirs), analyses of the water-quality data included summary statistics, maps of spatial distribution of constituent values, boxplots of constituent values by timeframe or hydrogeologic unit, spatial comparisons of site locations and constituent values to petroleum well density, and comparisons of the constituent values measured to EPA drinking-water standards/guidelines. Produced water includes all fluids brought to the surface along with the targeted hydrocarbons as part of the oil and gas exploration and extraction processes. These fluids may include formation water (waters that co-exist with rock/oil/gas), hydraulic fracturing fluids, and other combinations of water and chemicals used during oil and gas well drilling, development, treatments, recompletions, and workovers. Produced water datasets were aggregated from two sources: the USGS National Produced Waters Geochemical database (ver. 2.1) and a series of projects focused specifically on sampling produced water in the Williston Basin from 2010 to 2014. The National Produced Waters Geochemical database was useful for a general understanding of produced-water chemistry. Produced waters are characterized by extreme salinity and contain elevated concentrations of other constituents (including arsenic, barium, cadmium, lead, zinc, radium-226/radium-228, and ammonia) that could negatively affect water and aquatic resources if released. Produced waters also have a generally unique chemical (isotopic) signature that may be useful in tracking water from different geologic units; for example, the oxygen/deuterium and strontium ratio values measured in brine waters from the Bakken Formation are distinct from brines collected from other geologic units in the Williston Basin.

Water-use information related to energy production in the area also was aggregated and summarized. The summary of water use is not limited to oil and gas production but includes water used to produce all types of energy resources in the Williston Basin, including coal/lignite, thermoelectric power, oil and gas, hydropower, biomass and biofuels, wind, geothermal, and solar. Each State has its own methods for regulating and reporting water usage within its jurisdiction. These methods can introduce problems when examining water use from sources, such as the Missouri River or Fox Hills aquifer, that are shared across political boundaries. Without the one-to-one match for usage types and amounts used from a water source, it is difficult to develop a comprehensive water budget for the water source being evaluated. A large amount of freshwater is required to prepare a well for oil and gas well production; in some cases, 3 to 7 million gallons of water are needed per well. The EPA estimates that hydraulic fracturing in the Williston Basin uses between 70 to 140 billion gallons per year. Water also is used for myriad other purposes related to ancillary oil and gas extraction. In addition to water used for immediate energy development, the expanded human workforce migrating into the area and other support staff who have moved into the area during the development also use water.

Research and information needs were identified that could be relevant in the evaluation of the effects of energy development on water resources. Information needs related to the evaluation of groundwater resources include the following: improved potentiometric-surface maps for glacial units; availability of a uniform stream network digital geographic coverage that spans the international boundary with Canada; enhanced surface-water use information with regards to the gain and loss of streamflow to shallow groundwater, which would increase understanding groundwater and surface-water interactions; and expanded geophysical assessments. Gaps in the availability of streamflow data include the lack of information on ice-jam flooding despite potential for effects to infrastructure (pipelines, roads, and facilities) and an understanding of the cumulative effects of largely undocumented stock and diversion dams. Although this study resulted in the aggregation of a large quantity of water-quality data, the availability of consistently collected, systematically processed and reported data over large parts of the Williston Basin is sparse. Few samples have been analyzed for constituents that may indicate the effect of energy development on water resources. Constituents that could be considered include boron, chloride, bromide, iodine, fluoride, manganese, lithium, radium, strontium isotopes, volatile organic compounds, and isotopes of inorganic ions (such as hydrogen and carbon). Collaboration between Tribal, Federal, State, and local entities to identify a common study design, common monitoring constituents, and consistent sampling locations would generate datasets with broad utility and would likely result in overall cost savings for monitoring over time. Similarly, there is a need for standardized sample collection, processing, laboratory analytical methods, and the collection of ancillary data for produced waters sampling. Additional characterization of the range of chemical, microbial, and isotopic compositions and quantities of “end-member” produced waters, and the collection of time-series datasets to document the changes in produced waters during and after well development also were needs identified during this study. Water-use estimates would be improved through the implementation of comprehensive studies of water use from groundwater and surface-water sources using consistent methodologies across the Williston Basin. The submission of chemical and water data related to hydraulic fracturing collected by the oil and gas industry would add to the quantity of available data. Consistent implementation of regulations and monitoring controls across political boundaries (State, county, and international) would further improve the consistency of data available for the estimates of water use.

Suggested Citation

Bartos, T.T., Sando, S.K., Preston, T.M., Delzer, G.C., Lundgren, R.F., Nustad, R.A., Caldwell, R.R., Peterman, Z.E., Smith, B.D., Macek-Rowland, K.M., Bender, D.A., Frankforter, J.D., and Galloway, J.M., 2022, Potential effects of energy development on environmental resources of the Williston Basin in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota — Water resources: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5070–C, 159 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20175070C.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Groundwater Resources
  • River and Stream Resources
  • Lake and Wetland Resources
  • Quality of Water Resources
  • Produced Water
  • Water-Use Data
  • Research and Information Needs
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix C1
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Potential effects of energy development on environmental resources of the Williston Basin in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota — Water resources
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2017-5070
Chapter C
DOI 10.3133/sir20175070C
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center
Description Report: xv, 159 p.; 1 Figure: 8.50 × 11.00 inches; Data Release
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title Potential Effects of Energy Development on Environmental Resources of the Williston Basin in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota
Country United States
State Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota
Other Geospatial Williston Basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details