Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Predicting attenuation of salinized surface- and groundwater-resources from legacy energy development in the Prairie Pothole Region

June 26, 2019

Oil and gas (energy) development in the Williston Basin, which partly underlies the Prairie Pothole Region in central North America, has helped meet U.S. energy demand for decades. Historical handling and disposal practices of saline wastewater co-produced during energy development resulted in salinization of surface and groundwater at numerous legacy energy sites. Thirty years of monitoring (1988–2018) at Goose Lake, which has been producing since the 1960s, documents long-term spatial and temporal changes in water quality from legacy energy development. Surface water quality was highly variable and decoupled from changes in groundwater quality, likely due to annual and regional climatic fluctuations. Therefore, changes in surface water-quality were not considered a reliable indicator of subsurface chloride migration. However, chloride concentrations in monitoring wells near wastewater sources exhibited systematic temporal reductions allowing for estimates of the time required for natural attenuation of groundwater to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acute and chronic chloride toxicity benchmarks and a local background level. Point attenuation rates differed based on sediment type (outwash vs till) and yielded a range of predicted years when water-quality targets will be reached: acute – 2045 to 2113; chronic – 2069 to 2160; background – 2126 to 2275. Bulk attenuation rates from four separate years of data were used to calculate the distances chloride could migrate downgradient from the largest wastewater source. Potential distances of downgradient migration before dilution to water-quality targets decreased from 1989 to 2018: acute – 949 to 673 m; chronic – 1220 to 922 m; background – 1878 to 1525 m. Several downgradient wetlands are within these distances and will continue to receive saline contaminated groundwater for years. While these results demonstrate chloride attenuation at a legacy energy site, they also highlight the persistence of saline wastewater contamination and the need to mitigate future spills to prevent long-term salinization from energy development.