Suitability of river delta sediment as proppant, Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, Nebraska and South Dakota, 2015

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5105

Prepared in cooperation with Midwest Region Initiative on Natural Sources of Fracture Sand



Sediment management is a challenge faced by reservoir managers who have several potential options, including dredging, for mitigation of storage capacity lost to sedimentation. As sediment is removed from reservoir storage, potential use of the sediment for socioeconomic or ecological benefit could potentially defray some costs of its removal. Rivers that transport a sandy sediment load will deposit the sand load along a reservoir-headwaters reach where the current of the river slackens progressively as its bed approaches and then descends below the reservoir water level. Given a rare combination of factors, a reservoir deposit of alluvial sand has potential to be suitable for use as proppant for hydraulic fracturing in unconventional oil and gas development. In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey began a program of researching potential sources of proppant sand from reservoirs, with an initial focus on the Missouri River subbasins that receive sand loads from the Nebraska Sand Hills. This report documents the methods and results of assessments of the suitability of river delta sediment as proppant for a pilot study area in the delta headwaters of Lewis and Clark Lake, Nebraska and South Dakota. Results from surface-geophysical surveys of electrical resistivity guided borings to collect 3.7-meter long cores at 25 sites on delta sandbars using the direct-push method to recover duplicate, 3.8-centimeter-diameter cores in April 2015. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey collected samples of upstream sand sources in the lower Niobrara River valley.

At the laboratory, samples were dried, weighed, washed, dried, and weighed again. Exploratory analysis of natural sand for determining its suitability as a proppant involved application of a modified subset of the standard protocols known as American Petroleum Institute (API) Recommended Practice (RP) 19C. The RP19C methods were not intended for exploration-stage evaluation of raw materials. Results for the washed samples are not directly applicable to evaluations of suitability for use as fracture sand because, except for particle-size distribution, the API-recommended practices for assessing proppant properties (sphericity, roundness, bulk density, and crush resistance) require testing of specific proppant size classes. An optical imaging particle-size analyzer was used to make measurements of particle-size distribution and particle shape. Measured samples were sieved to separate the dominant-size fraction, and the separated subsample was further tested for roundness, sphericity, bulk density, and crush resistance.

For the bulk washed samples collected from the Missouri River delta, the geometric mean size averaged 0.27 millimeters (mm), 80 percent of the samples were predominantly sand in the API 40/70 size class, and 17 percent were predominantly sand in the API 70/140 size class. Distributions of geometric mean size among the four sandbar complexes were similar, but samples collected from sandbar complex B were slightly coarser sand than those from the other three complexes. The average geometric mean sizes among the four sandbar complexes ranged only from 0.26 to 0.30 mm. For 22 main-stem sampling locations along the lower Niobrara River, geometric mean size averaged 0.26 mm, an average of 61 percent was sand in the API 40/70 size class, and 28 percent was sand in the API 70/140 size class. Average composition for lower Niobrara River samples was 48 percent medium sand, 37 percent fine sand, and about 7 percent each very fine sand and coarse sand fractions. On average, samples were moderately well sorted.

Particle shape and strength were assessed for the dominant-size class of each sample. For proppant strength, crush resistance was tested at a predetermined level of stress (34.5 megapascals [MPa], or 5,000 pounds-force per square inch). To meet the API minimum requirement for proppant, after the crush test not more than 10 percent of the tested sample should be finer than the precrush dominant-size class. For particle shape, all samples surpassed the recommended minimum criteria for sphericity and roundness, with most samples being well-rounded.

For proppant strength, of 57 crush-resistance tested Missouri River delta samples of 40/70-sized sand, 23 (40 percent) were interpreted as meeting the minimum criterion at 34.5 MPa, or 5,000 pounds-force per square inch. Of 12 tested samples of 70/140-sized sand, 9 (75 percent) of the Missouri River delta samples had less than 10 percent fines by volume following crush testing, achieving the minimum criterion at 34.5 MPa. Crush resistance for delta samples was strongest at sandbar complex A, where 67 percent of tested samples met the 10-percent fines criterion at the 34.5-MPa threshold. This frequency was higher than was indicated by samples from sandbar complexes B, C, and D that had rates of 50, 46, and 42 percent, respectively. The group of sandbar complex A samples also contained the largest percentages of samples dominated by the API 70/140 size class, which overall had a higher percentage of samples meeting the minimum criterion compared to samples dominated by coarser size classes; however, samples from sandbar complex A that had the API 40/70 size class tested also had a higher rate for meeting the minimum criterion (57 percent) than did samples from sandbar complexes B, C, and D (50, 43, and 40 percent, respectively). 

For samples collected along the lower Niobrara River, of the 25 tested samples of 40/70-sized sand, 9 samples passed the API minimum criterion at 34.5 MPa, but only 3 samples passed the more-stringent criterion of 8 percent postcrush fines. All four tested samples of 70/140 sand passed the minimum criterion at 34.5 MPa, with postcrush fines percentage of at most 4.1 percent.

For two reaches of the lower Niobrara River, where hydraulic sorting was energized artificially by the hydraulic head drop at and immediately downstream from Spencer Dam, suitability of channel deposits for potential use as fracture sand was confirmed by test results. All reach A washed samples were well-rounded and had sphericity scores above 0.65, and samples for 80 percent of sampled locations met the crush-resistance criterion at the 34.5-MPa stress level. A conservative lower-bound estimate of sand volume in the reach A deposits was about 86,000 cubic meters. All reach B samples were well-rounded but sphericity averaged 0.63, a little less than the average for upstream reaches A and SP. All four samples tested passed the crush-resistance test at 34.5 MPa. Of three reach B sandbars, two had no more than 3 percent fines after the crush test, surpassing more stringent criteria for crush resistance that accept a maximum of 6 percent fines following the crush test for the API 70/140 size class.

Relative to the crush-resistance test results for the API 40/70 size fraction of two samples of mine output from Loup River settling-basin dredge spoils near Genoa, Nebr., four of five reach A sample locations compared favorably. The four samples had increases in fines composition of 1.6–5.9 percentage points, whereas fines in the two mine-output samples increased by an average 6.8 percentage points.

Suggested Citation

Zelt, R.B., Hobza, C.M., Burton, B.L., Schaepe, N.J., and Piatak, Nadine, 2017, Suitability of river delta sediment as proppant, Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, Nebraska and South Dakota, 2015: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5105, 51 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Suitability Assessment of River Delta Sediment
  • Suitability Assessment of Upstream Sources
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Glossary

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Suitability of river delta sediment as proppant, Missouri and Niobrara Rivers, Nebraska and South Dakota, 2015
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Nebraska Water Science Center
Report: viii, 51 p.; Tables: 4; Data Release
United States
Nebraska, South Dakota
Other Geospatial:
Missouri River, Niobrara River
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):