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Five Marcellus Operators Hit by Pennsylvania Water Cutbacks

April 23, 2012
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Seventeen separate water withdrawals already approved in Pennsylvania by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) -- mostly for natural gas operators -- have been temporarily suspended because localized stream flow levels have fallen throughout the basin because of drought conditions, officials said.

"Hydrologic conditions have been on a steady decline for some time following a winter with very little snow and below normal rainfall this spring," said SRBC Executive Director Paul Swartz. "As a result of low stream flows in many portions of the basin, 17 individual water withdrawals affecting 10 companies in five Pennsylvania counties have been temporarily suspended by virtue of the commission's pass by flow restrictions. The majority of those suspended withdrawals are related to water for natural gas development."

Five energy producers and a pipeline operator had their water withdrawal sources in three Pennsylvania counties temporarily suspended as of last Wednesday. Bradford County, one of the biggest areas for Marcellus Shale production, suspended three operators' water withdrawal sources: Chesapeake Energy Corp., Sugar Creek; Talisman Energy Corp., Fall Brook at Bense, Seeley Creek at Jones, Sugar Creek at Hoffman, Wappasening Creek at Adriance and unnamed tributary to North Branch Sugar Creek; and Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. at Towanda Creek.

Suspensions in Lycoming County, another big Marcellus play, affected Exco Resources Inc., Muncy Creek at McClintock; and XTO Energy Inc., Lick Run and Little Muncy Creek. And in Tioga County, Tennessee had water withdrawals suspended from an unnamed tributary of North Elk Run.

Under the commission's pass by flow restrictions, when streams fall to pre-determined protected low-flow levels, project sponsors that are required to meet the SRBC's requirements have to stop taking water and may not resume taking water until the streams have "recovered above the protected level for at least 48 hours."

The commission and its regulated project sponsors monitor real-time stream-flow data generated by stream gauges, which are maintained and operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "Based on unseasonably low stream flow conditions, SRBC's pass by requirements actually began kicking in as early as February...for certain water withdrawals in northern Pennsylvania," a commission spokesperson said.

Regulated project sponsors are required to install tamper-proof water meters to automatically record their water withdrawals on a daily basis. SRBC also monitors the USGS gauges daily to determine which ones have triggered, and field staff conducts frequent spot inspections to verify compliance with pass by requirements.

Not all SRBC approvals contain pass by restrictions, such as approved withdrawal amounts that are so small they would not affect the protective levels of streams. In those cases, companies may continue to take water during low-flow periods.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Water Management office "has been closely monitoring the key hydrologic parameters, including stream flows, groundwater levels, and precipitation deficits as well as soil moisture indexes," said Deputy Secretary Kelly Heffner. "Among the protocols that DEP follows is the 90-day trigger of much below normal precipitation."

If the drought persists, the SRBC "anticipates more water withdrawals being suspended, as was the case in 2010 and 2011," said Swartz. "The commission does not wait for drought declarations to temporarily halt water withdrawals. Our science-based stream protection system kicks in well before streams drop to critical low levels."

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