Lawyer: Iowa sand mining firm wants to export water to make up for oil-related losses

By: - May 1, 2020 4:33 pm

Parched land. (Photo by Getty Images)

A northeast Iowa sand mining company wants to export Iowa water to western states in part to put its staff back to work, its lawyer noted.

A downturn in the oil industry has been a blow to Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, company lawyer James Pray of Des Moines wrote in a letter to the Gov. Kim Reynolds and Kayla Lyon, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“Until recent (reversals) due to plunging demand, due to oil price drops and the current coronavirus crisis, Pattison Sand was one of the largest employers in northeast Iowa, employing nearly 300,” Pattison lawyer James Pray wrote. “In an effort to put employees back to work, Pattison Sand has been aggressively looking for new markets for the products that it owns on its property.” 

Pray asked the state to “put falsehoods and misunderstandings aside and look at the actual facts,” including DNR’s earlier decision to approve similar wells at the site. Pattison has applied to drill a new well, but says the water it exports would come from an allotment of 1 billion gallons a year already approved for the company. 

Pattison has filed a new application in its effort to export millions of gallons of water from Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer to drought-stricken states in the West. The company hopes to load 10 rail cars with Iowa water in June as a pilot program. Its earlier request to begin exporting Friday failed to win DNR approval in time. 

DNR regulators have balked at the plan, concerned that it violates the intent of Iowa’s water withdrawal laws. This is the first water export proposal DNR has received, aside from small border rural water systems.

At times, Pattison Sand has produced sand used for fracking and other industrial purposes. In 2018, it used 360 million gallons of water for its sand operation, according to its permit documents. 

Newly released documents show Pattison wants to export Iowa water in part to supply livestock and irrigate crops in Nevada and Colorado, state documents show. The water also could be treated and used for drinking, or for commercial processes.

Pattison revived its proposal after state regulators pushed back on the idea and demanded a new application because the use of the water would be different than in the sand mining operation.

Company owner Kyle Pattison maintained in nearly 300 pages of documents filed with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources that the withdrawals would not have any effect on the aquifer. He added that the export of Iowa’s water would support jobs in Iowa and in the states where Iowa’s water is sold.

“Water is being shipped to locations that are faced with emergency conditions of water shortages,” Pattison wrote. “We have a water resource that has no impact on the state of Iowa’s water reserve and if we can export it, it will have a significant positive impact on jobs and economic activity in northeast Iowa.”

Pattison claimed that Iowa’s regulations which may block the move are misguided. “The effect of the rules is to prohibit the wholesale sale of groundwater from the state of Iowa,” Pattison wrote. “Water sales should not be prohibited by the DNR as the DNR does not have jurisdiction over the regulation of commerce.”

Pattison added that while the Jordan Aquifer is hundreds of feet deep in other parts of the state, it is near the surface in Clayton and easily recharged by rains. Pray maintains the regulations governing withdrawals from that aquifer don’t apply in this case.

One of the first customers for the controversial plan — the first large-scale proposal to export Iowa water in a commercial enterprise — would be the NiCon Industrial Park in Evans, Colorado, the company’s application notes. Water also would be sent to a farm operation in the state of Nevada. 

Previously, the company appeared to be focusing on serving drinking-water utilities in drought-stricken western states. 

In the new filings, Kyle Pattison maintains that the water would evaporate or run downstream whether Pattison exported it or not. 

Pattison also noted that his company has provided the state of Iowa with “better quality rock for a competitive price” for projects that included work with the Iowa Department of Transportation. 

The water would be transported by a company called Water Train. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources earlier told the company it would need to submit a new application for the right to export water, not the amendments to its existing sand-mining permits the firm had submitted. DNR water officials also have raised questions about whether the permit would violate state regulations. 

Alex Murphy, spokesman of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said the state staff will spend the next few weeks reviewing Pattison’s latest filings.

State geologist Keith Schilling of the University of Iowa has called for further study of the effect of the withdrawals on the rest of the state.

Iowa state regulations require special review of any use of the Jordan Aquifer because it is very slow to refill with water. Some of the water in the aquifer has been there tens of thousands of years. 

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