Last Thursday, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), which regulates how much water industries can withdraw from the Susquehanna and its tributaries, ordered 22 companies to suspend their withdrawals because of low water conditions in north central Pennsylvania . This is the second time this year the SRBC has ordered water users to stop taking water from streams that have hit critical low flows. The 22 companies hold 37 permits to take water from our rivers and streams. Many of the companies affected by the suspension order are gas drillers.
The SRBC keeps close tabs on the amount of water in streams and the demand for water from the companies it regulates through a system of gauges and meters to protect aquatic life and ensure enough water is flowing downstream for other water users. Companies may not take water out if their withdrawals would leave too little water in streams and rivers.
Unfortunately, there is no river basin commission in the Ohio River basin, which includes the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and their tributaries, keeping tabs on water levels in those streams. Under the authority of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has included water withdrawal restrictions in gas drilling permits in the Ohio basin. Unfortunately, DEP does not have the monitoring system in place to determine when specific streams, especially smaller streams, fall below critical levels. Without a robust monitoring system, DEP has scant, if any, capacity to determine if drillers are complying with their water use restrictions. To date, DEP has never ordered gas drillers operating in western Pennsylvania to suspend their water withdrawals.
In total, there is more than enough water available to gas drilling operations despite their significant demand on water resources. Gas drilling requires much less water than electric power plants, for example. The problem with the water demands of the gas drillers is localized. Their demand for water may diminish water flows below critical levels on some of the smaller streams they use. None of the suspensions ordered by the SRBC take from the main stem of the Susquehanna. The suspensions affect smaller creeks and tributaries.
So, who is watching southwestern Pennsylvania stream levels to ensure the drillers aren’t taking water when there is too little to take?