Pennsylvania may be water-rich, but factors like permitting and geography make water increasingly difficult to come by for drilling operations, several Marcellus Shale players told a Pittsburgh-area audience on Wednesday.

"We've got plenty of water," Tom Beauduy, deputy executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), said at the Shale Gas Water Management Marcellus Initiative in Canonsburg, PA. "The biggest issue for this industry, and for all industries, is really the timing and location of withdrawals."

Even though the Appalachian Basin crosses three river basins and gets significant rainfall, operators said it can be difficult and costly to get the roughly 5 million gallons needed to hydraulic fracture (frack) each well one time.

"It's basically an optimization problem," said John Owsiany, director of water resources for Consol Energy Inc. "When we talk about the optimization problem, what are we evaluating? We're looking at availability. We're looking at quality. And we're looking at cost. And these items frequently determine our supply choice."

Those choices include natural sources -- like rivers or groundwater -- and industrial sources -- like produced water or drainage from the legacy coal mines. While streams are abundant, they're also highly regulated and highly demanded and usually require trucking of the water, increasing cost, he said. Groundwater sources are closer to operations and less in demand, but take twice as long to permit and require wells that may or may not be productive, he added.

Owsiany and others said public water supplies won't be an option as drilling operations grow in the region.

"The sources we have been using and relying upon may not be the ones that are as reliable in the future," he said.

Owsiany is promoting alternatives, particularly mine drainage.

That water source is abundant, spread across the region and already permitted, and state regulators are eager for companies to help them manage the longstanding environmental issue, Owsiany said. Chemically speaking, mine drainage blended with produced water might even be of higher quality than simply diluting flowback water, he said.

Seneca Resources is already using mine draining at some drilling sites, and at the conference, representatives from Consol, EQT Corp. and Range Resources Corp. said their companies were actively studying the issue.

One of the biggest hurdles, though, is legal. Companies that use mine drainage become liable for it, an issue that Ken Burris, senior principal consultant for WorleyParsons, described as the "if you touch it, you own it syndrome."

In the meantime, many companies are reducing the cost of traditional water supplies through new infrastructure.

Range is building a pipeline to connect its drilling operations in southwestern Pennsylvania to the Ohio River, allowing the company to pull up to 70 bbls per minute, according to Joe Frantz, vice president of engineering.

At several drilling sites in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, EQT built small systems of eight- and 12-inch diameter pipe to connect multiple well pads, allowing the company to truck large amounts of water to a single location.

Talisman Energy Inc. decided that a pipeline project wasn't economic for many of its drilling ventures, according to Water Usage Engineer Martyn Memory. So instead the company focused on site selection and automation.

At the north branch of Sugar Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River in northeast Pennsylvania, Talisman spent $1.5 million on an automated system that uses public water flow data from the U.S. Geologic Survey to automatically withdraw and store water as stream levels allow under the terms of a three-year SRBC permit.

The system saves $150,000 per well over trucking, Memory said, and Talisman expects to use it on 400 wells.