EDITORIAL: Anadarko drill-water deal with Aurora runs deep

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Aurora lawmakers are trying to prove that oil and water do mix. Despite the insistence of some at City Hall, however, it won’t be as clean and easy as they hope.

Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. has offered to buy about $10 million worth of “used” Aurora water for drilling-fracking operations along the Front Range. It’s an amazing offer and a sound financial coup for Aurora residents.

The petroleum giant, which has been busy drilling for gas and oil in Colorado for years, has offered to buy 1,500 acre-feet of Aurora’s treated-but-unusable water each year for five years, and pay about four times the going rate for the privilege.

The water would almost certainly be a lost asset if Anadarko didn’t offer to buy it. It’s water that Aurora customers have already used to wash clothes, flush toilets and bathe in. While some of Aurora’s used water goes to Sand Creek for treatment and then back onto city golf courses and parks for irrigation, that plant can’t treat any more used water than it already does. Like most of Aurora’s effluent, it’s sent to the Metro Wastewater District plant along the Platte River north of Commerce City. There, the water is treated and released into the river.

While Aurora has made an international name for itself in reclaiming some of that Platte River water and pumping it back to Aurora for domestic use, that sophisticated system is also handling as much “used” water as it can handle. The water being considered for sale — enough to provide for 1,500 families of four for a year if it were properly treated and stored — would just be sent downstream to Nebraska.

So instead of losing this asset, the pact would allow the city to sell it for almost $10 million, helping to pay off water department debt or give small annual rebates to current water customers.

It’s a good deal, and there’s no reason the city shouldn’t sign on.

But the sale doesn’t come without strings or consequences. Clearly, Anadarko is offering to pay four times the going rate because officials there believe the petroleum company is getting something out of the deal more than water for fracking. It could be that Anadarko is hoping to buy nothing more than the goodwill of the City Council, Aurora residents and the Front Range. It could be that Anadarko hopes the purchase will have a favorable bearing on Aurora drilling issues that come before the City Council in the future. Despite the denials of some at City Hall, local municipalities most certainly will and do have a say in backyard fracking operations. Commerce City and a handful of other Colorado cities are making that point right now.

What’s more, by selling Anadarko this water, city lawmakers are indirectly giving their approval to fracking in Colorado, and there is no escaping that reality or perception. It’s not a given that such a tacit endorsement is a problem. Like it or not, the entire world is tied to petroleum, and local production of gas and oil offer real and valuable economic benefits to Colorado — and Aurora. City lawmakers are mistaken if they believe they can divorce themselves from the politically controversial use of this water: fracking. If a giant medical marijuana grower were to make the same offer to temporarily use the water for a Brighton pot farm, rest assured there would be a host of city officials viewing this issue very differently.

Without doubt, the City Council chooses sides with the sale of this water.

And as to shrugging their shoulders over Anadarko paying four times the going rate for water, Aurora knows that game all too well already. The city currently operates outrageously expensive drip water systems for produce farmers in the beleaguered Arkansas Valley, where Aurora dried up thousands of acres of historical farmland after a series of controversial water purchases from the Arkansas River. Why? Because water officials know that the city gets something in return for such outlandish expenditures, just like Anadarko.