Monday, August 16, 2010

SRBC: Drought And Gas Drilling: Susquehanna Stream Protection Program Working

By Paul O. Swartz, Executive Director, Susquehanna River Basin Commission

This summer began with one of the hottest Junes on record in the Susquehanna River Basin. Successive weeks of extremely high temperatures, blazing sun-filled skies and much below normal rainfall amounts led to emerging drought conditions in late June and early July.
Of particular concern to the Commission and other water management agencies were the rapidly dropping streamflows, especially in northern Pennsylvania.
Not unexpectedly, we began getting calls from citizens very concerned that smaller streams would be harmed if water withdrawals by the natural gas industry in the Marcellus shale region were not suspended.
As the calls were mounting for the Commission to consider tighter restrictions and for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to consider drought declarations, heavy rainfall events provided needed relief throughout much of the Susquehanna watershed starting in mid-July.
As periodic storms rolled across the watershed, drought-like conditions were kept largely at bay. But hydrologic conditions quickly declined as yet another heat wave hit the basin in mid-August.
Is the Commission relying solely on the return of rains to protect our waterways? Absolutely not.
Do we rely on calls from concerned citizens to suspend certain water withdrawals when streams drop below normal? Again, absolutely not.
Without fanfare, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s process for protecting streams during low flows is working as intended. Throughout July and so far in August, many water withdrawals for natural gas activities have been suspended because of the Commission’s protective requirement, known as the passby flow restriction.
We started off in July with 45 water withdrawals being suspended because of passby flow restrictions. As I write today in mid-August, there are more than 63 water withdrawals in 19 counties that have been suspended. While those numbers account for various types of water-dependent activities approved by the Commission, many of them involve natural gas activities.
The Pennsylvania counties where such suspensions are in place involving water sources for natural gas include Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Lackawanna, Lycoming, Potter, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Wyoming.
Under our passby flow restrictions, when streams drop to designated protected low flow levels, project sponsors who are required to meet the Commission’s passby requirement MUST stop taking water. And they cannot resume taking water until streams have recovered above the protected level for at least 48 hours.
Our field inspectors have been verifying that those companies required to suspend withdrawals are in fact abiding by those restrictions. Many of our inspections are taking place during non-standard work days and hours, including weekends and evenings to avoid predictable patterns.
But we don’t rely solely on field inspections to verify compliance. All project sponsors are required to install tamper-proof water meters that automatically record their takings on a daily basis. The Commission gets that information reported to us quarterly, in addition to our field staff continuously doing spot inspections.
In early 2010, the Commission opened its first-ever field office in Sayre, Bradford County, Pennsylvania, to significantly enhance compliance and enforcement activities. This field office allows us to be more proactive in our inspections and to follow up more quickly on calls from concerned citizens.
It is important to note that the Commission’s stream protection measures kicked in even when no drought declarations were in place. And that’s because our system is ahead of the curve. We do not wait for drought declarations or phone calls from citizens or keep our fingers crossed and hope for rain. Our system is based on science and kicks in well before streams drop to critical low levels.
We base our surface and groundwater withdrawal approvals on the conservative assumption that hydrologic conditions will be on the below-normal side, not normal or above. These conservative assumptions are why our protective measures kick in early to protect waterways.
We are rightfully being asked, “Why does the Commission approve some water withdrawals without placing passby restrictions on them so companies can continue to take water during low flow periods?” Those are the withdrawals where the approved amounts are so small that they will not affect the protective levels of streams.
Of course, there is always the theoretical possibility of impacts where no passby restrictions exist. But, because we take our science seriously and we review each water withdrawal application on a case-by-case basis to ensure protection, we are confident the science is working and we are doing the due diligence to protect our environment.
Will we rely solely in our confidence that everything is working as it should? No.
I have directed staff to conduct additional scientific field evaluations to verify and make certain that the system we have in place continues to work during lower flow periods.
In light of the increased water demands from the natural gas industry, the Commission is committed to devoting the resources necessary to protect the environment and downstream water uses.
The citizens of the Susquehanna watershed have the commitment of my commissioners and me that if we determine more protective measures could be needed above and beyond the protective system we have in place, we will not fail to institute additional measures.
For more information, visit the SRBC Marcellus Shale Regulation webpage.

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