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Drought Conditions Re-emerge; SRBC Again Suspends Permits

Blame it on the rain, or a lack thereof. Just days after the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) had restored all of the 17 water withdrawal permits it had temporarily suspended in mid-April, back-and-forth drought conditions in northeast Pennsylvania have forced the agency to re-suspend two permits.

"This is a good example of the ups and downs that we're expecting to see this spring, summer and maybe fall if we don't see significant rainfalls," SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski told NGI's Shale Daily on Wednesday.

Obleski said the two permits -- for Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc. to withdraw water from an unnamed tributary of the Middle Branch of Wyalusing Creek in Susquehanna County, and for Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. to take water from an unnamed tributary of North Elk Run in Tioga County -- were both re-suspended on Monday.

The two permits were among 17 first suspended by the SRBC on April 18 (see Shale Daily, April 20). The commission had restored all of the permits -- except Tennessee's, which Obleski said was restored Saturday -- by April 24 (see Shale Daily, April 25). Most of the suspended permits were for natural gas operators.

Obleski added that a third permit -- also held by Carrizo and very close to the location of the permit currently under suspension in Susquehanna County -- was in danger of being suspended as well.

"We're having rainfall events during the evening and nights, so that may be enough to keep things at bay," Obleski said. "Based on the status of this week, it's probably not going to change between those three -- the two Carrizo permits and the one Tennessee permit -- because the others are not at the gate waiting to trigger. So if there are any changes or movement it's probably going to be between these three."

Obleski said she didn't anticipate other permits being suspended this week.

Under the SRBC's "pass by flow" restrictions, when streams fall to pre-determined protected low-flow levels, project sponsors that are required to meet the commission'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."

Regulated project sponsors are required to install tamper-proof water meters to automatically record their water withdrawals on a daily basis. The SRBC also monitors gauges from the U.S. Geological Survey on a daily basis 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 SRBC is scheduled to hold a public hearing on water withdrawals, consumptive use project applications, proposed fee amendments and updates to the commission's comprehensive plan on May 10. The meeting will be held from 2:30-5 p.m. in Harrisburg at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Room 8E-B. Written comments will be accepted until May 21.

Most of the projects that will be discussed at the public hearing are for oil and natural gas drilling. Operators include Anadarko E&P Co. LP, Aqua Resources Inc., Carrizo, Jo Jo Oil Co. Inc., Niagara Gas & Oil Services Inc., Northeast Natural Energy LLC, Southwestern Energy Production Co., SWEPI LP, Talisman Energy USA Inc., Tennessee, Viking Energy of Northumberland LLC and WPX Energy Appalachia LLC.

The Susquehanna River Basin covers 27,510 square miles, including half of Pennsylvania and parts of New York and Maryland, and makes up a sizeable portion of the Marcellus Shale play. It is managed by the SRBC, a compact set up by the federal government in 1971. Representatives from the three aforementioned states and the Army Corps of Engineers serve as commissioners.

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