I was shocked this week when I read this number: 71 billion gallons of water in the state of Wyoming was essentially thrown away in 2017 by companies engaging in hydraulic fracturing for oil in the state.

The oilfield byproduct water produced in this process contains some oil, sand and other elements that make it unusable, so the wastewater is typically injected underground.

Jeff Holder director of the Beneficial-Use Water Alliance says the firm Encore Green recently watered rancher Owen Goertz’s pasture with cleaned byproduct water and it was a success, says an article in the Gillette (Wyo.) News Record.

After soil tests were conducted on Goertz’s pasture to figure out what nutrients the surrounding soil needed, thermal heat was used to clean the water of harmful materials but leave essential nutrients like nitrogen in the water.

The idea here is for energy companies to use the money they’re spending on byproduct water disposal for treating the water instead. Conservationists believe the extra water could not only water crops and grow feed supplies, but also help grow back grasses in areas that are just bare dirt to slow erosion issues.

It looks like this idea is gaining attention nationally. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced the “Water Security Grand Challenge” last month that is designed to “advance technology and innovation to meet the global need for safe, secure and affordable water.”

Using prizes, competitions, early-stage research and development funding opportunities, critical partnerships and other programs, the Water Security Grand Challenge sets a number of water-use goals for the U.S. to reach by 2030. One of them is to, “transform the energy sector’s produced water from a waste to a resource.”

Of course there are some unanswered questions here, such as how much farmers might have to pay in the future to get access to this treated water, and, if demand exceeds supply, how will officials decide who gets this water and how it will be rationed? With farmers with more modern, water-saving irrigation technology get preference? And if you agree to take this water application, how would it affect water rights?

But with all the problems the Ogallala aquifer is facing with depleted water levels, this new approach and the federal attention it’s getting is very positive.

Better irrigation and sensor technology, and an increased adoption of moisture-saving no-till practices in some areas could stretch this water resource further. Perhaps this will even lead to more cover crop seeding in areas where farmers are concerned covers will use too much soil moisture.