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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Bluff Residents Worry About Water As BLM Weighs Drilling Permit

A well pad and access roads seen from above
Kate Groetzinger / KUER
An existing well pad on public land in San Juan County. EOG Resources’ drilling application says it would disturb up to 20 acres of surface terrain by building pads and access roads. ";

BLUFF – An application to drill for oil and gas on public land near the Navajo Nation in San Juan County has residents worried about their water supply. 

“More and more people are drilling into our drinking water aquifer,” said Jackie Warren, chairman of the Bluff Service Area. “I would not like to be remembered as the chairman who did nothing about our water 20, 30 years from now.” 

Residents first raised concerns about the project four years ago, when EOG Resources, Inc. applied for the permits. Forty comments submitted during the scoping period for the permits highlighted the potential impact on groundwater, according to an environmental assessment conducted by the Bureau of Land Management, which would issue the permit.

The BLM “listened to concerns of local citizens during the scoping process for this project,” said Amber Johnson, the bureau’s acting Monticello field office manager. 

In response, the agency hired the US Geological Survey to conduct a hydrological study of the area, which found that water in the area moves north to south, putting the Town of Bluff and the San Juan River downhill from the wells. 

“These wells will be drilled through formations from which the town’s municipal water supply is sourced and will be used for the injection of high-pressure fluids to hydraulically fracture deeper formations to enhance recovery,” the study says. 

Ultimately, the study determined it would take a minimum of 2,107 years for contaminants from the wells to reach the town’s water supply. 

In a statement, Johnson added, “The BLM is committed to using the best available science in our decision-making processes.”

But local residents and conservation groups say they’re not convinced. Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a Bluff-based conservation group, says that although the study mentions hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, it fails to include it in the analysis. Fracking is a method in which a water-based solution of sand and chemicals is pumped deep underground to break up oil- and gas-containing rock formations. 

“We know that fracking causes changes to the underground geology. Yet the study just assumes that there will be no changes and that those chemicals will travel at natural rates,” he said. 

The study also fails to analyze a handful of abandoned oil wells between the lease sites and the town, Ewing said, adding those could act as “elevator-shafts” funneling contaminants up toward the water table.  

Ewing spoke to residents at the Bluff community center last night. After the presentation, local poet Eirene Hamilton said she’s afraid that her water could become contaminated like that of nearby communities on the Navajo reservation where she’s lived. 

“I lived in Montezuma Creek in the ‘70s — I lived there for a year — and you turn on the faucet and the water comes out brown,” she said. 


The BLM is accepting public comment on the EOG Resources application to drill through February 6.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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