Officials with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) announced Wednesday that the agency had started a multi-year effort to study water quantity, but rebuffed calls for it to be expanded to a comprehensive environmental study that could include the impacts of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the basin.
SRBC Executive Director Paul Swartz said he believes expanding the scope of the water quantity study "does the public a disservice," and said the study would instead focus on the cumulative impact of consumptive water use and its availability.
"Over the years, I have come to appreciate the phrase, 'stay in your lane,'" Swartz said. "At the street level, I think it generally means sticking to what you know and letting others do the same.
"When a regulatory agency chooses to stray out of its lane of expertise and mission, it can have profound programmatic and legal consequences. Despite some calls for us to make [the water quantity study] an expansive environmental assessment, we are being responsible water managers by focusing in our areas of responsibility and scientific and technical expertise."
The water quantity study is expected to be completed by 2015.
SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski told NGI's Shale Daily that people -- environmental groups in particular -- frequently draw a corollary between her agency and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which currently has a de facto moratorium on fracking. But she said the agencies are, in fact, very different.
"They regulate water quality and they always have," Obleski said Thursday. "We never have."
The DRBC and the SRBC are both interstate compacts, formed in 1961 and 1971, respectively. New York, Pennsylvania and the federal government are members of both compacts, while Delaware and New Jersey are in the DRBC, and Maryland is in the SRBC.
"The DRBC was formed in the '60s, when there were no agencies or water quality regulation standards," Obleski said. "When the DRBC came along, they decided they would take on that regulatory function because it didn't exist.
"We came along 10 years later, after the first Earth Day and after President Nixon formed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And while the drafters of the SRBC compact did look at the DRBC compact and mirrored the authorities, it also called on the SRBC -- because these agencies and regulations now existed -- not to duplicate their efforts.
"So yes, in our compact, the authorities are listed, but we are to exercise those when there's a gap or when our member states and the federal government ask us to step in."
Obleski added that if a comprehensive environmental study were performed, the SRBC would, at most, coordinate the actions of other agencies, including possibly the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
"You're talking not only about water quality, but the effect of increased traffic, health issues, the big, big, big picture," Obleski said. "Those are not our areas of expertise. Even the federal government, when they engage in NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] projects, they are pulling in the expertise from many agencies. One agency could not possibly have all of that expertise."
Guy Alsentzer, operations director for the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, told NGI's Shale Daily that he doesn't dispute that the SRBC is barred from duplicating the actions of its members states' agencies, including Pennsylvania's DEP. He also commended the SRBC for its "great job" in analyzing water quantity issues.
"The issue is that no one has comprehensively looked at what type of quality control mechanisms exist throughout the basin, and how they are being utilized," Alsentzer said Thursday. "This needs to be considered now because of the lessons we're learning in Pennsylvania's portion of the basin. Shale gas development is transforming the landscape and creating tangible, direct, indirect and cumulative impacts in terms of water quality and quantity.
"Why don't we take the time now to make an informed decision and understand what the baseline conditions are, what the impacts we're experiencing now are, and whether or not that that's a good thing or a bad thing? We need to create value judgment based upon science and fact, not based upon an assumption that other agencies are doing the job."
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.