Ask A Researcher

April 2016

The Changing Face of Western North Dakota: What are the Effects of Increased Travel from Energy Development?

Jessica Creuzer currently works as Project Coordinator at River Keepers, a small non-profit based in Fargo, ND. She is very passionate about the environment and believes that education is key when it comes to protecting our natural resources. She also enjoys spending time with family, camping, hiking, and traveling to as many places as possible. She is completing her Masters of Science in Natural Resources Management. In this article Jessica and her advisor, Dr. Christina Hargiss, Assistant Professor in the department of Natural Resources Management at North Dakota State University, highlights a research study specifically examining the impact of dust being generated by the additional traffic on unpaved roads on the wetlands in western North Dakota.

 

 

This article is a condensed version of Does Increased Road Dust Due to Energy Development Impact Wetlands in the Bakken Region published January 2016 by Creuzer et al. in Water, Air and Soil Pollution scientific journal. 

Energy development has changed the scene of western North Dakota over the last decade. Much of the energy related traffic passes the unpaved roads where many of the active drilling wells are located. Overall, there is little research on the subject of environmental impacts of energy development. One of the environmental concerns of these impacts is the amount of dust being generated by the additional traffic. To assess this, a study was carried out June-October in 2012 and May-October in 2013 and can be used as baseline data for future research. Even though there is currently a slight bust in development, now is the best time to study the effects so we know how to manage it in the future when/if the boom returns.

This study looked at the impacts of dust on wetlands next to unpaved roads. It was a comparison study to see the differences between 10 low impact wetlands, where there is little to no energy development, with 10 high impact wetlands, where there is a high density of energy development. The active wells that are within the low impact sites were drilled prior to 1990 and create very little, if any, energy related traffic. The weather stations were monitored for rainfall, in case there was too much rainfall to stay within dust collectors.

The four objectives of this study were to determine differences in: 1) dust loading; 2) water quality; 3) elements of the soil; and 4) wetland assessment.
Dust collectors were set up alongside each wetland at 10 meters, 40 meters, and 80 meters from the center of the unpaved road. This was a passive method where the collectors were set in place and the dust was collected every month during the sampling period.

The funnel was rinsed at each collection so all of the dust captured fell into the two-gallon bucket, which was replaced every month. The samples were then brought back to the North Dakota State University campus, dried out, then weighed to measure the amount of dust collected at each site. Those dust collection totals were averaged out to estimate the amount of dust collected at high impact sites versus low impact sites and at each distance.

This graph shows the average dust loading by grams per meter squared per day between high and low impact sites. The high impact sites had three times the amount of dust loading of the low impact sites at the 10m location. To explain this a little further, on average there were 3 grams of dust falling in a 1 square meter, 10 meter from the road, every day. The high impact dust loading is also higher at the 40 meter and 80 meter locations, but the 10 meter distance has the largest difference.

The results of the water quality, soil samples, and wetland and assessment showed little difference. There were multiple factors tested in the water and soil samples. The slight differences found are mostly attributed to the natural variation in water and the soil surrounding wetlands. The wetland assessments looked at factors such as vegetation and how the wetland creates habitat. The slight differences found here are most likely because of the land use diversity in the area.

This study made the first steps in understanding some of the implications of increased energy development in western North Dakota. Overall, the most significant difference between the high and low impact sites was the amount of dust that was falling onto the landscape. One thing to keep in mind is that the effects to the environment from these disturbances may not be seen for years. Long term effects will most likely be very different than the short term effects, so these results can help future managers decide how to mitigate those issues. Continuing to research different components of these impacts will also be crucial for future managers.
For more information on this study please contact Dr. Christina Hargiss at christina.hargiss@ndsu.edu.

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