Extra protection in place for water amid drilling

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission has a set of rules for gas companies.

STEVE MOCARSKY smocarsky@timesleader.com

The Department of Environmental Protection isn’t the only state agency intent on protecting water sources from natural gas drilling activities that could affect area residents.

Tom Beauduy, deputy director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said the commission requires drilling companies to account for “every gallon of water” withdrawn from any water source within the basin – where it comes from, where it’s used and what happens to it after it’s used.

And, a $1 million water quality monitoring system is being put in place near drilling sites within the basin, Beauduy said.

Beauduy said Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania hit the commission “like a tsunami,” just like it did every other impacted agency in the state.

The natural gas industry uses 4 million to 6 million gallons of water per natural gas well to release gas from the shale in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Currently, the industry is using about 1 million gallons per day in the state, and Beauduy expects that amount to increase to 28 million a day.

The commission, which is responsible for water resources planning, management, conservation, development, use and allocation, responded quickly to the industry’s needs. Protocols were adjusted so the commission could deal with the surge of water allocation requests, but no corners are cut when granting water withdrawal approvals, Beauduy said.

All companies known to be drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, which underlies more than 72 percent of the Susquehanna River Basin, were notified of the commission’s regulatory requirements. And the commission activated a previously unused rule that authorized an administrative “approval by rule” process for water withdrawals solely from public water supplies.

To date, Beauduy said the commission has approved 111 surface water withdrawals, with 55 applications pending; and 22 approvals of public water supply withdrawals, with 14 pending. It has also issued 662 approvals by rule for individual well pad sites and has 181 pending.

While the amount of water the gas industry needs might seem massive, Beauduy pointed out that the golf and ski resort industry in Pennsylvania consumes an average of 56 million gallons per day. He said industry needs can be accommodated if regulated properly. The industry must abide by restrictions that prevent negative impacts on streams and rivers that could harm aquatic life and water quality.

And while DEP regulates how the industry must dispose of flowback water from fracking operations, the commission will track area rivers and streams to catch a contamination problem.

The commission will have 30 water quality monitoring stations set up by the end of June in the regions where drilling in the Marcellus Shale is most active, as well as other locations where no drilling activities are planned so the commission can collect control data. The monitoring network will provide constant data collection with instruments sensitive enough to detect subtle changes in water quality on a frequency that will allow background conditions and any changes to them to be documented throughout the year.

Each monitoring station will be equipped with water quality sensors and a transmitter to continuously monitor and report water temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, ability to conduct electricity (conductance) and water clarity. The water depth also will be recorded to establish a relationship with stream flows.

The monitoring of conductance is key to detecting impacts associated with natural gas activities if they occur because water produced by the natural gas industry is generally 200 times more conductive of electricity than water normally measured in streams in the basin.

The monitoring network, the data from which will be accessible online by the public, will provide early warnings to help DEP officials respond more rapidly and better pinpoint causes if water quality conditions change. It will also help local public water suppliers, local watershed groups and communities stay informed.

Steve Mocarsky, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7311.

Copyright: Times Leader