If you’re irrigating crops on the Great Plains you’ve no doubt heard about the declining water levels in the Ogallala aquifer and the implications for farmers and communities in several states.

Recently, after a 4.8-magnitude earthquake shook our house in Oklahoma, I wondered if there something better we could do with wastewater from drilling operations than simply injecting it deep underground.

Turns out I’m not alone. An article in Phys.org discussed the potential for using leftover water from oil and gas drilling to irrigate crops and help farmers weather water shortages. Two groups of scientists are studying the idea.

A student from the Colorado School of Mines is growing spring wheat and sunflowers in a greenhouse using tap water, diluted raw produced water, and diluted, treated produced water from oil and gas operations, looking for differences in how the plants grow and in their uptake of salts, metals, and organic chemicals.

The results were to be presented this week at the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colo. Another student in the program is examining how this water is already being used in Wellington in north-central Colorado, and was also discussing this at the same meeting.

Similar discussions are being held in New Mexico, where a research team completed a comprehensive study of the use of produced water in Lea and Eddy counties in the southeastern part of the state. 

According to Phys.org, Lea County has no surface water and aquifer levels there have dropped 100 feet in recent years, says Robert Sabie of the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

There are some challenges ahead to working this out. The regulatory and water rights frameworks are still an issue, and the water jurisdiction issues make some farmers uneasy, Sabie notes. The mining school says the produced water is often loaded with salts and other compounds and falls under federal oil and gas regulations that don’t apply to water from wells drilled specifically for water.

I’ve not been able to reach the schools for results on what they’ve found, but I will report back when I do. 

In addition to helping growers adopt no-till practices, cover crops and livestock grazing operations that improve soil health and maximize water-use efficiency, I think these outside-the-box ideas are also worth exploring and should be taken seriously by farmers and other stakeholders in agriculture.