Keeping the water flowing, a rancher’s fight to limit oil and gas development

As hydraulic fracturing threatens aquifers, it puts ranching and other industries at risk in arid western Colorado.

“Without drinkable water you cannot sustain life…but in this country, people are just totally unaware or totally uninterested by that,” Don Lumbardy said. “Look at Flint Michigan, they still don’t have clean water and nobody seems to care. Look at the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone Pipeline, they’re about water and the right to drinkable water.”

Don sits in a blue recliner in his living room. Outside, the intense sun of the Western Slope shines down on Don’s home pastures. The fields are soft greenish-brown. An unusually dry winter and spring created another parched summer.  

“I do worry about the future generations, if people don’t get it into their heads how important some of our resources are, they can’t sustain life and I don’t know what kind of future that will look like.” 

Don Lumbardy was born in 1948 in Mesa County, just 20 miles west of the ranch he lives on today. Lumbardy Ranch is nestled north of the Gunnison River, several miles north of the 209,610-acre Dominguez Escalante National Conservation Area, and at the western foot of the Grand Mesa National Forest. Don has always been a big believer in the connectivity of food, the land, and human health. He always knew he wanted to be a farmer and rancher. Don remembered waking up early to help his dad with the cattle and the cool, dry, high desert chill on his face. He recalled helping his mom pull weeds in the garden in the late afternoon, the sun beating down on his back while his hands slid through the soil. He said it was moments like these, the peace and quiet of the ranch, working with his hands, and living off the land that made him want to follow in his family’s footsteps. 

Don is a fourth-generation rancher and it shows. His hands are cracked and full of a lifetime of hard work. Throughout his life he watched as development endangered his values, vastly changed his surroundings, and altered the way of life he knew and loved. Today, oil and gas development looms over him and his operation, threatening the way of life he loves most and has given everything to have. 

“If drilling should occur, it could compromise the springs that provide irrigation, stock, and well water; it would be devastating”” 

Don’s ranch gets the majority of water from the Grand Mesa Mountain, a mountain to the east of his ranch. 

“It comes out of a spring about 50 or 60 feet below the top of the mountain,” Don explained. 

Don said because Grand Mesa Mountain is a volcanic formation there’s a lot of water-rock and normally a good spring runoff. 

“I had adequate water on a normal year but I don’t know what normal is anymore,” Don said. “From year to year lately there’s nothing normal anymore, so it’s like you’re rolling the dice every year.”

Colorado has experienced severe drought throughout the state in the last few years. Water scarcity is a high concern for most Coloradoans.  

To supplement the mountain water, Don utilizes water from springs that run from the high foothills on the edge of Don’s home pastures. Don’s land borders Bureau of Land Management lands that are under lease to oil and gas developers as of the time of this letter. Some of his land is in a split estate that was also leased by the BLM to oil and gas. Drilling permits allow for companies to drill under some of Don’s home pastures, with the potential to disrupt his spring water supply. 

Hydraulic fracturing, the process proposed to be used to extract gas from the shale deposits beneath Don’s pastures, uses a massive amount of fresh water. A study found that shale-gas water use ranged from 390,000 to 6.27 million gallons per well across gas fields in the US. In arid Western Colorado, there is very little fresh water to spare, and Don’s water supply could be threatened by the thirsty oil and gas operations. 

Don is concerned that the development is much too close to his land. This could create major problems for Don and the water supply he depends on. Don fears should the company drill too close to his land, they may redirect the flow of the spring water completely, cutting off his domestic supply of water from the spring. In addition to the flow of the spring getting disrupted, Don is worried that the deadly fracking chemicals used in the process may mix in his water and poison it.  There have been numerous examples of water contaminated due to fracking, and Don doesn’t want to be in that statistic. The risk of methane release into his spring is another huge concern of Don’s. Elevated levels of methane in water can cause dangerous combustions and leave room for more accidents on the ranch. For Don, the way in which companies plan to drill the area near him are just too risky. He said drilling opens up so much ground for irreversible error. Drillers can easily hit and contaminate underground aquifers.

“There’s just no way to stop an accident or contamination when you’re drilling,” Don said, “the room for error is too high.” 

The land surrounding the foothills on Don’s ranch have been passed through multiple leases from multiple oil and gas companies since at least 1980, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Currently, Fram Whitewater of Fram Operating and its owner, Fram Americas, both of Colorado Springs, holds the lease. In May, Fram Whitewater filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, halting its plans to drill 108 wells from 12 pads. The BLM had estimated the project could result in the production of 8.7 million barrels of oil over 20 years. 

Fram was granted the authority to abandon their existing “machinery, fixtures, equipment, leases, oil, and oil barrels in Delta and Mesa Counties in Colorado and in Renville County in North Dakota,” essentially declaring their property worthless and leaving taxpayers to clean up the majority of the mess. The fate of Fram’s leases in the Whitewater Unit, which had not yet been developed, is unclear. The project was mostly situated on federal land, and the leases will either be sold to the company that purchases Fram or relinquished by the company and auctioned again for lease in the future.

Don fears for his water. If a company obtains the permits during the bankruptcy and goes through with drilling plans, the inability to access clean water would kill his operation and his livelihood in a place he has called home for decades. Don depends on clean water to water his livestock, hay his fields, and to drink himself. While Don could manage to bring in drinking water for himself, the cost of bringing in enough water to irrigate and water his livestock would be too much for him to front. Don has worked his whole life off-ranch to be able to work solely on-ranch. The risk oil and gas development poses to Don’s operation is enough to close him down.

The availability of water on the Western Slope is erratic at best. Don sees threatening that precious water as foolish.