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Faced With Shale Boom, SRBC Vows Increased Monitoring, Communication

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) said it will focus on regulatory activities and water quality monitoring related to shale gas development within the basin, as the organization begins its latest two-year Water Resources Program for the fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

In an added twist, the SRBC -- an interstate compact that includes Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and the federal government -- said it would "improve overall regulatory coordination with New York and Maryland sister agencies, with particular emphasis on the anticipated expansion of natural gas well drilling in the Southern Tier region of New York."

The current two-year program began on Monday and ends on June 30, 2015.

The SRBC said it had asked federal and state agencies to submit comments on several issues, including the best way to manage "the development of unconventional natural gas wells in shale formations for both water quality and quantity, and its implications on coordination and outreach." The deadline for the comments was March 4.

Six priority management areas are outlined in the SRBC's plan, which totals 119 pages. Those areas include water supply; water quality; flooding; ecosystems; the Chesapeake Bay, and coordination, cooperation and public information.

Specific to shale gas development in the basin, the SRBC said it would continue to expand its Remote Water Quality Monitoring Network (RWQMN) and its Early Warning System (EWS), which are both used by public water suppliers. The agency also said it was developing a Water Quality Portal (WQP) website "to provide a greatly enhanced opportunity for the public to access SRBC water quality data."

For the next two years, the SRBC said it will continue to conduct monitoring associated with the RWQMN project, which includes sub-basin surveys, interstate stream surveys, flow monitoring and large river assessments. The results would be used to help create an assessment of the health of all of the rivers and streams within the Susquehanna River basin.

According to the SRBC, its RWQMN project will also include continued water quality and biological baseline analysis activities at 59 testing stations within the basin, "with some focused analyses for determining if there are any verifiable impacts, to date, associated with natural gas development."

The agency later added RWQMN will "assist with maintenance and protection of surface waters in select portions of the [basin] experiencing intense natural gas development..."

The SRBC said that for the 2014 fiscal year, it has contracted with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) for "complete monitoring activities focused on surface water quality conditions within select forest tract lands undergoing natural gas development."

About 1.5 million acres of the 2.2 million-acre state forest system overlie the Marcellus, with 700,000 acres currently leased for drilling. Gov. Tom Corbett supports expanding more forested areas to leasing, but that hasn't happened yet for several reasons, including continuing low natural gas prices (see Shale Daily, March 7, 2012; Nov. 15, 2010).

Also specific to shale gas development, for the full two-year period, the SRBC said it will:

New York has had a de facto moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in place since 2008 (see Daily GPI, July 24, 2008). A decision on whether to ultimately allow the practice is on hold, pending the results of a health impact analysis (see Shale Daily, Sept. 24, 2012).

Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA) spokesman Jim Smith told NGI's Shale Daily that the SRBC's surprise statement about New York sounded speculative at best.

"It seems like they are speculating, just making an assumption," Smith said Wednesday. "It sounds like they're just trying to show some due diligence and assume that at some point [HVHF] would go forward -- and if not, they've really lost nothing. It sounds like just smart planning, that in the event it goes forward here they would be ready for it.

"In a sense, it's encouraging. It appears they're making an assumption that development will move forward in the Southern Tier. But I think they may just be covering their bases in the event that it does move forward."

The SRBC is required by the Susquehanna River Basin Compact to create a water resources program every year and distribute it to the public.

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