One method to beneficially use water produced from coalbed methane (CBM) extraction is subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) of croplands. In SDI systems, treated CBM water (injectate) is supplied to the soil at depth, with the purpose of preventing the buildup of detrimental salts near the surface. The technology is expanding within the Powder River Basin, but little research has been published on its environmental impacts. This article reports on initial results from tracking water and solutes from the injected CBM-produced waters at an SDI system in Johnson County, Wyoming.

In the first year of SDI operation, soil moisture significantly increased in the SDI areas, but well water levels increased only modestly, suggesting that most of the water added was stored in the vadose zone or lost to evapotranspiration. The injectate has lower concentrations of most inorganic constituents relative to ambient groundwater at the site but exhibits a high sodium adsorption ratio. Changes in groundwater chemistry during the same period of SDI operation were small; the increase in groundwater-specific conductance relative to pre-SDI conditions was observed in a single well. Conversely, groundwater samples collected beneath another SDI field showed decreased concentrations of several constituents since the SDI operation. Groundwater-specific conductance at the 12 other wells showed no significant changes. Major controls on and compositional variability of groundwater, surface water, and soil water chemistry are discussed in detail. Findings from this research provide an understanding of water and salt dynamics associated with SDI systems using CBM-produced water.

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