The Mississippian Fayetteville Shale serves as an unconventional gas reservoir across north-central Arkansas, ranging in thickness from approximately 50 to 550 feet and varying in depth from approximately 1,500 to 6,500 feet below the ground surface. Primary permeability in the Fayetteville Shale is severely limited, and successful extraction of the gas reservoir is the result of advances in horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing to enhance and develop secondary fracture porosity and permeability. Drilling and production of gas wells began in 2004, with a steady increase in production thereafter. As of April 2012, approximately 4,000 producing wells had been completed in the Fayetteville Shale.
In Van Buren and Faulkner Counties, 127 domestic water wells were sampled and analyzed for major ions and trace metals, with a subset of the samples analyzed for methane and carbon isotopes to describe general water quality and geochemistry and to investigate the potential effects of gas-production activities on shallow groundwater in the study area. Water-quality analyses from this study were compared to historical (pregas development) shallow groundwater quality collected in the gas-production area. An additional comparison was made using analyses from this study of groundwater quality in similar geologic and topographic areas for well sites less than and greater than 2 miles from active gas-production wells.
Chloride concentrations for the 127 groundwater samples collected for this study ranged from approximately 1.0 milligram per liter (mg/L) to 70 mg/L, with a median concentration of 3.7 mg/L, as compared to maximum and median concentrations for the historical data of 378 mg/L and 20 mg/L, respectively. Statistical analysis of the data sets revealed statistically larger chloride concentrations (p-value <0.001) in the historical data compared to data collected for this study. Chloride serves as an important indicator parameter based on its conservative transport characteristics and relatively elevated concentrations in production waters associated with gas extraction activities. Major ions and trace metals additionally had lower concentrations in data gathered for this study than in the historical analyses. Additionally, no statistical difference existed between chloride concentrations from water-quality data collected for this study from 94 wells located less than 2 miles from a gas-production well and 33 wells located 2 miles or more from a gas-production well; a Wilcoxon rank-sum test showed a p-value of 0.71.
Major ion chemistry was investigated to understand the effects of geochemical and reduction-oxidation (redox) processes on the shallow groundwater in the study area along a continuum of increased rock-water interaction represented by increases in dissolved solids concentration. Groundwater in sandstone formations is represented by a low dissolved solids concentration (less than 30 mg/L) and slightly acidic water type. Shallow shale aquifers were represented by dissolved solids concentrations ranging upward to 686 mg/L, and water types evolving from a dominantly mixed-bicarbonate and calcium-bicarbonate to a strongly sodium-bicarbonate water type.
Methane concentration and carbon isotopic composition were analyzed in 51 of the 127 samples collected for this study. Methane occurred above a detection limit of 0.0002 mg/L in 32 of the 51 samples, with concentrations ranging upward to 28.5 mg/L. Seven samples had methane concentrations greater than or equal to 0.5 mg/L. The carbon isotopic composition of these higher concentration samples, including the highest concentration of 28.5 mg/L, shows the methane was likely biogenic in origin with carbon isotope ratio values ranging from -57.6 to -74.7 per mil. Methane concentrations increased with increases in dissolved solids concentrations, indicating more strongly reducing conditions with increasing rock-water interaction in the aquifer. As such, groundwater-quality data collected for this study indicate that groundwater chemistry in the shallow aquifer system in the study area is a result of natural processes, beginning with recharge of dilute atmospheric precipitation and evolution of observed groundwater chemistry through rock-water interaction and redox processes.