National Ground Water Association (NGWA)

Availability, price of silica sand challenges water well contractors in the Southwest


A wide range of quality exists from available sand sources used for water well filter packs in the United States. In the Southwest, there is a noticeable difference from the top-quality sand to the next one down.

The reliability of quality silica sand has been in decline in recent years in the Southwest, according to Marvin Glotfelty, RG, principal hydrogeologist for Clear Creek Associates LLC in Scottsdale, Arizona. There are sometimes significant delays (more than a month in some instances) in getting material delivered to the well site, and the quality assurance of the material has been poor in some cases.

For many years, the top-quality source has been relied upon for installing large public-supply wells or industrial-use wells in the Southwest. The lower-quality sands are used more frequently in agricultural wells or other less-critical wells.

The photo at the left, provided by Glotfelty, who was the 2012 NGWA Foundation McEllhiney Lecturer, shows top-quality material that has been occasionally delivered with inclusions of angular shale and dark minerals.

“I believe this is a reflection of the limited supply of the high-quality material,” he said.

“As time goes on, we will have to either use more expensive options like the imported glass beads, or we will have to adjust our standards to accept poorer filter pack material. That second option will also cost us in the long run.”

The abovementioned glass beads, pictured in the bottom photo in the image at the right* are manufactured in Germany and can be 10 times as much as silica sand. This is not a viable option for most contractors.

Rather, most contractors work with their sand supplier to forecast which jobs are on the horizon and the amount needed to get ahead of the lead time.

Ralph Anderson, vice president of Arizona Beeman Drilling LLC in Gold Canyon, Arizona, and other contractors say lead times have increased since the oil and gas hydraulic fracturing boom began in the last six to eight years. Sand producers serve both the hydraulic fracturing and water well markets. The hydraulic fracturing market uses finer grades of sand than the water well market. The delay in lead times on the water well side may be due to the allocation of production resources being skewed toward the hydraulic fracturing market.

If the sand grade needed for the job isn’t available, Anderson will see if the client is satisfied with a larger sand size. Adapting to a larger sand size isn’t going to work in the environmental drilling market as monitoring wells require finer sand grades, which is also used in the hydraulic fracturing market.

Anderson also said the price of sand is now $700 a cubic yard for what used to be $300 before the boom (shipping cost included).

In the oil and gas drilling hydraulic fracturing market, the Wall Street Journal reports some predict the demand for sand may surpass supply by next year, giving way to a shortage that could last for most of 2018. Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. estimates the market will need 120 million tons of sand by next year, more than double the demand in 2014 at the pinnacle of the U.S. drilling boom.

Premier Silica LLC, acquired several years ago by Pioneer Natural Resources Co. and now called Pioneer Sands LLC, mines and processes sand from the Hickory formation in Texas and services numerous markets including the water well and hydraulic fracturing markets. Recent major capital projects at its flagship operation in Brady, Texas, have resulted in an increase in the capacity as well as the quality of its sands. As its overall level of mining activity and sand production increases, the amount of available coarse sand also increases.

Andre Fiedler, sales manager for Pioneer Sands, said the Hickory formation has a chemical composition of 99 percent silica. The higher the silica content of a sand, the lower the amount of dissolution of the filter pack potentially occurring during well development or well rehabilitation when an acid is used.

* In this image, also provided by Glotfelty — the second to the bottom photo is a top-quality sand from sources in Colorado and Texas. It is generally a well-rounded, well sorted, siliceous, aeolian (windblown) sand. The other three photos show sand quite a bit more angular, more poorly sorted, and containing more dark minerals (i.e., can be iron, manganese, and potential other constituents).

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