During a six-year boom period, the natural gas industry emerged as a major user of water in the Susquehanna River Basin, according to a new report by an oversight agency.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission reported last week that gas drillers used more than 13 billion gallons of basin water for their operations from 2008 through the end of 2013, mainly in the Marcellus Shale region in the basin's northern end. The study period ended before the sharp drop in natural gas prices and subsequent decline in number of drilling rigs in the region.
Drillers used an average 6.7 million gallons of water a day from the river, tributary streams and groundwater during 2008-13, comparable with average daily use by amusement parks, golf courses, ski areas and other recreational uses in the basin.
This is somewhat less than the average daily use of 8.6 million gallons of water by manufacturing industries.
Electric power generators, which include nuclear plants, remain by far the largest water users in the basin, withdrawing an average of 86 million gallons of water a day.
By way of comparison, 100 million gallons of water would form a column of water the area of a football field and the height of an 84-story building.
A salient point about the gas industry's water use is how it's concentrated in a small geographic part of the basin which covers parts of three states. The basin encompasses Northeastern Pennsylvania, except for Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties and small slices of eastern Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. Those areas are in the Delaware River Basin.
Some 70 percent of the water withdrawn by the industry came from six watersheds: the Susquehanna River above Sunbury; West Branch; Wyalusing Creek; Tunkhannock Creek; Pine Creek; and Sugar Creek.
The commission approved nearly 2,500 requests for natural gas-related water withdrawals in this period, with 80 percent of those approvals located in Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga and Lycoming counties.
The report concludes that the basin's water resources are sufficient to accommodate the water demands of the natural gas industry. The commission's monitoring programs haven't detected "discernible impacts" on the basin's water quality from natural gas development, but vigilance is needed, according the report.
"The primary concern related to water needs for hydraulic fracturing has not been conflict between industry and other human water needs, but rather for impacts to the Basin's aquatic ecosystems," said the commission's executive director Andrew Dehoff.
The multi-state agency has special powers to regulate consumptive water use in the basin. Consumptive water use includes evaporation, irrigation, manufacturing processes or being trucked away or diverted out of the basin.
The commission meets periodically to consider applications for withdrawal of set amounts of surface water and ground water from the basin.
On the agenda for the commission's May 4 meeting at Grantville are: applications by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. to withdraw water from Martins Creek in Harford Township; Susquehanna County and Sugar Hollow Trout Park and Hatchery to withdraw groundwater from wells in Eaton Township, Wyoming County.
"They (gas drillers) are a significant portion of the range of users that didn't exist before," said Bernie McGurl, executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association.
The report shows the main river has the capacity to handle the gas industry water withdrawals, but area conservationists are concerned about the impact on the headwater streams closer to the drilling sites, said McGurl.
He stressed the importance of using treated mine drainage water from the Old Forge borehole in the future to meet the gas industry's water needs.
The drilling water is contaminated with chemicals and must be treated differently than water used by a golf course, said Scott Cannon of Plymouth, a member of the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition.
Shale-development-related water is tightly and effectively regulated, said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. Coalition members pioneered water reuse and recycling technologies and the commission report reflects their success with that, he said.