Susquehanna River Basin: No Exclusion Zones for Water Withdrawals from Streams

Lack of restrictions includes Exceptional Value (EV) and High Quality (HQ) streams subject to water quality antidegradation rules
(Photos: Top– three DEP inspection report photos show the extent of the erosion and sedimentation problems starting with the August 24 inspection; Following photos from Friends of the ‘Sock– Middle- Pipeline crossing constructions begins with clearing work area; coffer dam to allow dewatering of half of Loyalsock Creek crossing;  Bottom- construction occurring very close to homes; coffer dam severely damaged by flood water from a rain event on September 5, 2022 that resulted in the failure of erosion and sedimentation controls and a sediment pollution plume for a mile downstream; Right- mud plume continues on September 10)
By David E. Hess
Former Secretary, PA Department of Environmental Protection
PA Environment Digest Blog | October 17, 2022

When considering natural gas industry or other water withdrawal requests, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has no exclusion zones for water withdrawals from any streams in the basin, including Exceptional Value and High Quality streams where water quality is protected by antidegradation rules, according to Andrew Gavin, Deputy Executive Director.

The SRBC focus is almost entirely on whether a stream’s flow is adversely affected by a proposed withdrawal. 

Only in some cases is water quality considered and then only in circumstances where there is a direct connection between less water in the stream and impaired stream quality.

SRBC can include more stringent time of year water withdrawal limits in Exceptional Value watersheds if they believe that is necessary, but the Commission relies on state environmental agencies like DEP to regulate water quality issues. 

For natural gas industry operations, SRBC starts regulating water withdrawals from the first gallon.  For other consumptive uses the threshold is 20,000 gallons per day.

“First, I’ll say we don’t have an outright prohibition on any waters in the basin,” said Gavin.  “We don’t have anything in policy or regs that prohibits withdrawals from headwaters, certain headwaters [or streams] with a certain [water quality] designation, or anything like that.

Andrew J. Gavin, SRBC Deputy Executive Director

“The evaluation always just starts with– Is the water available at the location that they’re requesting a withdrawal? And is it just feasible, based on the size of the withdrawal and such?” said Gavin.  

“We don’t end up, actually, we rarely end up denying a withdrawal,” said Gavin.  “Although we have a lot of approvals, what it doesn’t show is we’ve had a lot of situations where through our permitting, through our review process, projects, they have quite a bit of lead time in seeing sometimes that we’re not going to be approving a particular project.” 

Natural Gas Withdrawals

Total natural gas industry consumptive water use in the Susquehanna River Basin between 2008 and 2018 was 26.3 billion gallons.  Read more here.

The natural gas industry is the third largest consumptive water user in the Susquehanna Basin following public water suppliers and electric power plants.

Read more here.

SRBC approved a total of 261 surface water withdrawal points for use by the natural gas industry between 2008 and 2018, the most recent analysis available.  Read more here.

Of those, 96 expired and were not renewed and fewer than 70 were actively used as water sources during any one year.  Read more here.

The natural gas industry held 37 approvals using water sources having compromised water quality, primarily the use of acid mine drainage (34) and three from wastewater plant discharges, and used less than one-third of those sources between 2008 and 2018 with a total withdrawal of about 865 million gallons.  Read more here.

The Commission has also approved 13 diversions of surface water for use by the natural gas industry originating in the Ohio River Basin. As of December 2018, only three of the approved diversions have been actively used.  Read more here.

SRBC has a Water Withdrawal Application Viewer webpage to make application information and the location of approved water withdrawal points available to the public.

Water Withdrawal Application Viewer

A total of approximately 21.5 billion gallons of surface water were withdrawn by the natural gas industry and consumptively used during that period.  Read more here.

An additional 2.35 billion gallons of water was withdrawn from public drinking water systems for natural gas industry use. Read more here.

A report on natural gas industry water use released by the Commission in June 2020 concludes, “Potential adverse impacts to water sources are focused on the quantity, timing and location of the withdrawals.”  Read more here.

“Long-term monitoring should continue to ensure that low flow provisions provide adequate protection for aquatic communities, including fish or show that more conservative flow standards are needed.

“In the future, if water demand significantly increases, some watersheds and areas with concentrated withdrawals may need targeted management strategies.”

“Water used for hydraulic fracturing makes up a significant fraction of the consumptive use in the Susquehanna River Basin. Further, the natural gas industry’s water demands have been concentrated in a small number of watersheds, potentially creating conflicts over water availability on a local scale. In the coming years, competition and conflicts over water may erupt as a management issue if potential drought-related water supply constraints are coupled with intense development of natural gas reserves.”

June 2020 Report
EV & HQ Stream Designations

The issue of what the Susquehanna River Basin Commission considers in reviews of water withdrawal requests has been raised several times in the Loyalsock Creek Watershed in Lycoming County.  Read more here.

The Loyalsock is classified by DEP as an Exceptional Value stream that has four SRBC-approved natural gas industry water withdrawal points allowing the withdrawal of a total of 6.9 million gallons of water per day.  Read more here.

From 2008 to 2018, the two active natural gas industry water withdrawal points in the Loyalsock Watershed reported withdrawing nearly 600 million gallons– 595,172,958 gallons– of water for a total of 143 unconventional natural gas well pads approved in the watershed during that period. Read more here.

The Loyalsock Creek Watershed is the tenth largest source of water in the state for natural  gas industry development. Read more here.

In-stream and streambank construction of the last two natural gas industry water withdrawal points approved by SRBC and issued permits by DEP resulted in significant impacts to water quality and to the habitat of the rare Eastern Hellbender salamander, Pennsylvania state amphibian.  Read more here.

These violations of the Clean Streams Law are being investigated and dealt with by DEP and the Fish and Boat Commission.  Read more here.

“We definitely do a cumulative assessment of withdrawals when there’s a couple within the same stream length or reach,” said Gavin.  “If someone’s the first into the watershed, obviously we’re not doing a cumulative, we’re just assessing that specific withdrawal request against the water available. 

“Then if another one comes in, then we assess that individual withdrawal request as well, and then we account for any upstream withdrawals and make sure that there isn’t any cumulative impact that would cause concern for us. 

“Really the concern we’re looking for– is there any unacceptable alteration of the flow regime? Are stream flows going to be impacted at critical times based on the magnitude and the location of the withdrawal?” explained Gavin.

BOB’S FLASHBACK MOMENT:
‘Wild West’ water withdrawals from Chartiers Run (..and dumping?) in Washington County, PA

It was definitely ‘wild west’ with water withdrawals in western Pennsylvania during 2009, with frackers dropping a hose into any water source they could find, to vacuum out free water. Since most of these tanker trucks bore “RESIDUAL WASTE” placards, citizens were often confused about whether these ~4,000 gallon tankers were ‘pumping or dumping’ i.e. vacuuming-up stream water or dumping toxic flowback, which we now know is radioactive (Ra226) in many instances.
This particular documented case of water withdrawals, photographed on July 11, 2009, was from a small stream in front of the Washington County Firefighter Academy, and directly across from the MarkWest Houston Gas Plant. Chartiers Run was subject to daily water withdrawals over a long period of time, even during periods of low flow due to dry summer weather. This went on for months, maybe even a couple years, until a security guard shack suddenly appeared on the large gravel lot, restricting any further water withdrawals. Location: 895 Western Ave, Washington, PA 15301 GPS: 40.258762, -80.258169
So the question for the Susquehanna River Basin is: Who monitors all the water withdrawals to assure compliance with permit restrictions?

Water Management Plan – May 12, 2009:
No Automatic Prohibitions

With respect to whether a stream classified as Exceptional Value or High Quality is automatically prohibited from being used in a water withdrawal point, Gavin said no.  But it may trigger additional evaluations or water withdrawal limitations.

DEP designates Exceptional Value and High Quality streams based on a study of their aquatic life, physical and chemical water quality characteristics.  Read more here.

Law and regulations require the protection and maintenance of all existing instream water uses and the water quality necessary to meet those uses as defined in 25 Pa Code Chapter 93.4(a-d).  Read more here.

The antidegradation regulations mandate that the water quality of HQ waters shall be maintained and protected, with one exception that DEP permit applicants have to specifically address.  

The only exception is in a case where a person seeking a permit or approval that affects water quality is able to successfully demonstrate that a lower water quality is necessary to accommodate an important economic or social development (like a sewage treatment plant).  Read more here.

The antidegradation regulations mandate that the water quality of EV waters shall be maintained and protected, period.  There is no SEJ exception in EV watersheds.  Read more here.

Additional Evaluations

Residents and scientists have argued that taking significant amounts of water out of streams and not returning it– let alone nearly 600 million gallons– affects not only water quality, but the habitat of aquatic life, including trout, hellbenders and macroinvertebrates and that SRBC needs to take a more holistic view of the water quantity and quality impacts of water withdrawals.

“If we see the DEP stream assessment hasn’t been since 10, 15 years ago, we do like to go in and do our assessment just to confirm that the macroinvertebrate IBI score is good and the water quality is good, just so we can use that as further justification because in an EV setting, we will impose more stringent flow protections [during certain times of the year],” said Gavin. 

“We do those aquatic resource surveys sometimes when we’re not in a high quality setting if we want to get a better handle on, there may be conditions that we want to protect for that maybe aren’t as obvious,” Gavin said.

Gavin also said every application must undergo a check for endangered or threatened species through the PA Natural Diversity Inventory Conservation Explorer permit review tool.

Water Withdrawal Impact To Water Quality

One example he gave where a proposed water withdrawal had an impact on water quality was in Babb Creek, Tioga County where work was done to restore water quality by treating acid mine discharges going into the stream.

“We had an operation that wanted to [do a] withdrawal in the clean, the remediated part upstream of where, I think it’s Wilson Creek, comes in and it introduces metals and pH loading further down,” said Gavin.  “They would’ve been taking clean water, reducing the dilution capacity downstream. We told them that wouldn’t be acceptable. They actually moved down beyond the mixing zone as a result of some of the conversations with us.” 

“We do an environmental screening up front with every review. Lots of times that information is revealed through an environmental screening,” said Gavin.  “Even though we’re focused mainly on quantity, we rely on the states [and agencies like DEP] to take primacy on the water quality [after our permit is issued].”

“We do have staff that review all the water quality, the biological data, just to see if there’s anything that we would need to account for in our review, because we do have in our regs that we don’t want to contribute to an existing water quality problem [like in Babb Creek],” explained Gavin. 

Water Withdrawal Reporting

Owners of water withdrawal points are required to file reports with SRBC quarterly on their consumptive water use taken from daily measurements.  Those reports are required to include when they have to stop or pass withdrawals due to low flow conditions in their SRBC permits..

“We have seen pass by violations, and that’s where we feel confident that the system is working because we have picked up where certain operations have violated their pass by flow triggers,” said Gavin.  “Luckily I can say those cases have been few and far between, but when it does happen, we do go out and follow up, inspection depending on the magnitude of the deviation.

“The one thing we track very closely are what projects are supposed to be on pass by. We do have our inspectors target those operations during summer low flow season to track that.”

SRBC has a Hydrologic Conditions Monitor webpage to make this information available to the public.

Well Pad Water Use

SRBC issues approvals for both the point of water withdrawal and for consumptive water use on individual oil and gas drilling pads.  A standard permit from SRBC allows the consumptive use of 4 million gallons per day per well pad.

“It’s a one, two sort of approval,” said Gavin.  “They have to come to us, get approval for withdrawal of the water, but then we want to know where the water’s going and have some oversight as to when it’s actually consumptively used and at what location.

“But I would say the one that we focus a lot more of our attention on is on the withdrawal. The use at the pad is more like a general permit.”

SRBC’s report of oil and gas industry water use between 2008 and 2018 found hydraulically fractured wells in Pennsylvania used, on average about three times as much water in 2018 than they did in 2009 because the average length of laterals increased from 2,200 feet to 7,000 feet.  Read more here.

Water use per foot of well fractured also increased from 1,000 to 1,5000 gallons per foot to an industry average 2,200 gallons per foot.  Read more here.

SRBC said industry reported reusing flowback water in its operations, but that peaked in the third quarter of 2015 at 34 percent.  Read more here.

Overall, average water use per well for fracturing rose 600 percent between 2009 and 2018.  Read more here.

Loyalsock Creek

With respect to the proposed water withdrawals in the Loyalsock, Gavin said SRBC held a public meeting in the watershed to answer questions about the way withdrawals are reviewed.

“We don’t normally take this step, but we actually held public meetings up, one in the Loyalsock in one of the fire halls up there,” said Gavin.  “We certainly recognize the public interest in the sites and the questioning of SRBCs approval process. 

“I’ll say too, and you know this probably, the answers we give have been less than satisfactory, but what we try and explain to them is we’re focused on the quantity with respect to how much the watershed can support with respect to the withdrawal.”

“In the case of Loyalsock, EV doesn’t make a water withdrawal, it’s not prohibited. It’s not a prohibitive setting for having a water withdrawal in any of our policies or regs. 

“We have to evaluate it based on whether it’s going to adversely affect the flow of the stream. 

“In the case of Loyalsock, when it has an EV setting, it’s not a lot with respect to links to water quality, but to the extent that if it does have an EV, if it is designated as EV, it automatically gets increased flow protection,” said Gavin.

“The one thing that we always try and reassure everyone is, the most critical aspect of a withdrawal is that it could be withdrawing more water at the wrong time to impact the ecosystem,” said Gavin.  “Each of those withdrawals have a cutoff as to where before it even approaches a point at which it would affect the aquatic ecosystem, we have the pass by flow protection triggers in there where they actually have to stop withdrawing water.

“We feel like it’s protected at the most critical flows because between, for most months of the June, July through November, sometimes even in some spring shoulder months, there’s a pass by that requires them to shut down so that they don’t draw the flows down too far,” explained Gavin.  “We feel like that affords extra protection and recognizes the EV designation. 

‘Terrible’ What’s Happening Now

“It is tough, because we approve withdrawal of the water and make sure that the water withdrawal can be accommodated there,” said Gavin.  “What you’re seeing out there now as you know [in the Loyalsock Creek] are the surface, the associated surface and construction activities with the withdrawal that we’re not regulating, but it’s obviously related to the withdrawal.” 

“It’s terrible when you see something like that, especially in a setting like the Loyalsock,” said Gavin. 

For more information on programs, training opportunities and upcoming events, visit the Susquehanna River Basin Commission website.  Click Here to sign up for SRBC’s newsletter.   Follow SRBC on Twitter, visit them on YouTube.

(Written by David Hess, former Secretary, PA Department of Environmental Protection.)

Resources Links:

— SRBC Water Use Associated With Natural Gas Development In The Susquehanna River Basin – 2008-2018  (June 2020)

— SRBC Regulating Water Uses In The Susquehanna River Basin

— SRBC Aquatic Resource Surveys

— SRBC Ecosystem Flow Recommends For Susquehanna River Basin

— SRBC Water Withdrawal Application Viewer, Map

— SRBC Hydrologic Conditions Monitor

Related Articles This Week:

NO SPECIAL PROTECTION: The Exceptional Value Loyalsock Creek In Lycoming County Is Dammed And Damned – Video Dispatch From The Loyalsock – By Barb Jarmoska, www.KeepItWildPA.org 

— PA League Of Women Voters, University Of Pittsburgh Graduate School Of Public Health Host 2022 Shale Gas & Public Health Conference Online Nov. 15-16  [PaEN]

Related Articles – PGE Project:

Exceptional Value Water Quality Designation, State Forest Land, River Honors Were Not Enough To Protect Loyalsock Creek From Natural Gas Drilling & Pipelines In Lycoming County – By Friends Of The ‘Sock   [PaEN]

— Rare Eastern Hellbender Habitat In Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming County Harmed By Sediment Plumes From Pipeline Crossings, Shale Gas Drilling Water Withdrawal Construction Projects  [PaEN]

— DEP, Fish & Boat Commission Investigate Multiple, Continuing Water Pollution Discharges From PGE Natural Gas Pipeline Construction Site On Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming County  [PaEN]

— DEP Issues 2 NOVs Against PA General Energy For Water Pollution Discharges Into The Loyalsock Creek From Gas Pipeline/Water Withdraw Construction In Lycoming County  [PaEN] News

[Posted: October 17, 2022]  PA Environment Digest | Source

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