Front Range farmers bidding for water to grow crops through the coming hot summer and possible drought face new competition from oil and gas drillers.
At Colorado's premier auction for unallocated water this spring, companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing at well sites were top bidders on supplies once claimed exclusively by farmers.
The prospect of tussling with energy industry giants over water leaves some farmers and environmentalists uneasy.
"What impact to our environment and our agricultural heritage are Coloradans willing to stomach for drilling and fracking?" said Gary Wockner, director of the Save the Poudre Coalition — devoted to protecting the Cache la Poudre River.
"Farm water grows crops, but it also often supports wildlife, wetlands and streamflows back to our rivers. Most drilling and fracking water is lost from the hydrological cycle forever," Wockner said. "Any transfer of water from rivers and farms to drilling and fracking will negatively impact Colorado's environment and wildlife."
The Northern Water Conservancy District runs the auction, offering excess water diverted from the Colorado River Basin — 25,000 acre-feet so far this year — and conveyed through a 13-mile tunnel under the Continental Divide.
A growing portion of that water now will be pumped thousands of feet underground at well sites to coax out oil and gas.
State officials charged with promoting and regulating the energy industry estimated that fracking required about 13,900 acre-feet in 2010. That's a small share of the total water consumed in Colorado, about 0.08 percent. However, this fast-growing share already exceeds the amount that the ski industry draws from mountain rivers for making artificial snow. Each oil or gas well drilled requires 500,000 to 5 million gallons of water.