Fracking is shown to alter regional water availability and contaminate groundwater and aquifers.
A total of 210 watersheds that are important for drinking water protection in Pennsylvania are at risk of declining supply as a result of fracking.
Clean water is essential for drinking water, sanitation, and healthy communities. Additionally, clean water is vital for the healthy growth of crops and livestock, making it crucial for agriculture. Clean water is also important for some industrial uses like steam cooling operations. These water uses mentioned above are all non-consumptive water uses, meaning the water is used, treated, and returned to the environment. Unconventional fracking water use is consumptive, meaning the hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater used across the Marcellus shale formation each year are permanently removed from our water cycle.
Concerns around fracking freshwater consumption stretch beyond the local, small scale ecosystems losing water. Securing such large quantities of contaminated water underground is dangerous because it may:
- Alter regional water availability: One study in Ohio found that fracking water withdrawals from small streams has resulted in 10-20% flow reductions in about half of HUC12 watersheds in the Ohio River Basin.
- Contaminate groundwater and aquifers: One EPA study found elevated chloride levels in domestic water supplies near fracking sites due to impoundment leaks. Another study found elevated concentrations of thallium that exceeded safe drinking levels in groundwater supplies.
For these reasons, we determined which PA watersheds will face supply issues in the coming years with a focus on those where fracking activities are further threatening the water supply through either quantity or quality issues.
Managing our public and private water supplies has been a growing concern across US communities. In Pennsylvania, water treatment and delivery systems are radically out of date. According to the Pennsylvania Annual Drinking Water Report, Pennsylvania had over 28,000 Safe Drinking Water Act violations in 2022 alone. These facilities face further challenges when less water is available in the streams containing fracking related withdrawal points.
As water levels drop due to drought or upstream withdrawals, the remaining water has a higher concentration of pollutants and contaminants, making it more difficult and expensive to treat. This can result in water that is more difficult to clean and may contain higher levels of harmful substances.
To address these issues, there have been efforts to modernize the management of water resources and infrastructure in the United States. This resulted in the Biden Administration passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in November 2021, which delivered more than $50 billion to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve the nation’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure. This was the single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made.
Attempts to predict decline in water supply are confounded by increasing occurrence and severity of drought, land cover and land use changes, and increased water demand. Water systems that are experiencing withdrawals without recharge are at even greater risks of water supply decline. This may also be worsened by groundwater depletion in areas where surface water isn’t safe or the primary source of water.
Tools Used to Assess Risk and Impact
Our goal was to determine which PA watersheds will face supply issues in the coming years with a focus on those where fracking activities are further threatening the water supply through both quantity and quality issues. To accomplish this, we conducted a study using the Geographic Information System based assessment tool, Forest to Faucet 2.0 (F2F2). This tool helps land and water management professionals identify watersheds important for protecting drinking water and assess threats like wildfire and yield decline to water supply (Mack et al., 2022).
Water yield decline values were determined using the F2F2 dataset and watersheds with oil and gas related withdrawals and/or fracking wells within them were trimmed for the analysis. Of the 421 watersheds with fracking activities, 60% of those watersheds (250) are within the national percentile top 25% of the projected water yield decline by 2090 (Figure 1), and two of the watersheds are within the national percentile top 1% of the projected water yield decline. These are considered most at risk of water decline within the fracking region in the face of climate change.
The F2F2 dataset also evaluates the relative importance of these watersheds as drinking water sources using an Index of Importance to Surface Drinking Water Model and Drinking Water Protection Model (IMPR). This model takes into account both the quantity of water produced and the population supported by a watershed. Watersheds in the top 25% are those that are more important than 75% of the nation’s watersheds for supplying drinking water.
We found that 75% of watersheds (317) with fracking activities were in the national percentile top 25% of IMPR watersheds. Notably, 29 of these are in the national percentile top 1% of IMPR watersheds (Figure 2).
For this study, we overlapped watersheds of importance to drinking water protection with data of at-risk water supplies. This helped us identify watersheds that are both important for drinking water protection and at risk of declining supply.
A total of 210 watersheds were determined to be important surface drinking water resources with projected yield decline and containing fracking activity. These watersheds and nearby water withdrawal sites used by oil and gas operators can be explored in the interactive map below.
The legend “No,No” means that fracking activity is not present, thus the watersheds were not considered in this study on risks to supply decline. The legend “Yes,No” means that fracking activity is present but the watersheds IMPR and yield decline are not both at risk. The legend “Yes,Yes” means that fracking activity is present and the watersheds are important for drinking water protection and at risk of declining supply.
Each watershed contains information on their area in square kilometers, mean annual yield in gallons, the calculated population served by intakes downstream (by individual watershed), the IMPR percentile value, and the projected water yield decline by 2090 percentile value.
Of the discussed IMPR watersheds expected to face water yield declines, about 85% are within the Ohio River Basin. The five million people served downstream by surface water intakes are at risk of higher concentrations of harmful chemicals in their water and increased water costs.
Figure 1. Of the 421 watersheds with fracking activities, 60% of those watersheds (250) are within the national percentile top 25% of the projected water yield decline by 2090.
Figure 2. We found that 75% of watersheds (317) with fracking activities were in the national percentile top 25% of IMPR watersheds. Notably, 29 of these are in the national percentile top 1% of IMPR watersheds.
This interactive map looks at watersheds under climate and fracking threats in Pennsylvania as of August 2023.
View the map “Details” tab below in the top right corner to learn more and access the data, or click on the map to explore the dynamic version of this data. Data sources are also listed at the end of this article. In order to turn layers on and off in the map, use the Layers dropdown menu. This tool is only available in Full Screen view. Items will activate in this map dependent on the level of zoom in or out.
View Full Size Map | Updated 8/1/2023 | Map Tutorial
Climate and Economic Justice
The Ohio River Basin contains a high proportion of disadvantaged communities that are historically underserved and overburdened by pollution. The confounded effects of water yield decline, population growth, failing infrastructure, and fracking activities nearby threaten the health and financial well-being of downstream residents.
The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) is a geospatial mapping tool that identifies areas across the United States where communities are faced with significant burdens. The tool is designed to identify communities that have faced these historical issues to help policymakers and community leaders make informed decisions about how to allocate resources. The tool was launched by the Biden-Harris Administration as part of the Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to the disadvantaged communities identified using CEJST.
The CEJST uses data related to eight categories as indicators of burden: climate change, energy, health, housing, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, and workforce development. The population blocks used in the CEJST are colored by the number of exceedances (CEJ) across these eight categories in Figure 3A. In order to highlight the regions where IMPR watersheds are facing yield decline and harms from fracking, we hatched the affected census blocks as seen in Figure 3B. These are regions that have already been harmed by fracking activities, and a great number of them are regions with significant issues that must be addressed.
The following number of census blocks were determined to be disadvantaged by respective indicators, including climate change (17), energy (45), health (44), housing (51), legacy pollution (34), transportation (21), water and wastewater (3), and workforce development (27). Many of these populations reside on the major rivers in Western PA, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers (Figure 4A-C, respectively).
Figure 3. (A) This map of Pennsylvania contains the CEJST grouped regions color coded by severity of exceedances from the eight indicators of burden listed above. The redder regions face more climate and economic injustices. (B) This map uses the same CEJST file as Figure 3A, but has hatched groups that are the communities with at-risk water supply watersheds.
Figure 4. This map is a zoomed in version of Figure 3B, focusing on the three major rivers of the Greater Pittsburgh Region. (A) The Ohio River communities containing at-risk water supply watersheds include Aliquippa, Ambridge, Midland, and Rochester. (B) The Allegheny River communities containing at-risk water supply watersheds include Brackenridge, Butler, Ford City, Freeport, Kittanning, New Kensington, and Parks Township. (C) The Monongahela River communities containing at-risk water supply watersheds include California, Charleroi, Clairton, Donora, Elizabeth, McKeesport, Monessen, Stockdale, West Newton, and Whitehall.
Pennsylvania’s regulations justify pollution of protected bodies of water by claiming its social and economic benefits. This practice likely extends to other forms of environmental degradation like freshwater withdrawals. However, these towns and communities are often left dealing with more negative consequences than positive results. Towns like these are referred to as boomtowns and get caught in negative feedback loops of this behavior, and many of the towns in Figure 4 are Boomtowns. Boomtowns are defined as “small, rural, isolated communities that experience rapid energy development, and the associated industrialization and population growth that come with it.”
Pennsylvania has a history of boomtowns with conventional oil and gas, as well as coal and mineral mining, and now with Marcellus unconventional fracked gas development. Many towns along the major rivers in the Commonwealth are boomtowns because industries chose to build in places where they can access water for shipping and industrial processes. However, the rapid energy development that occurs in these boomtowns often leads to negative consequences for the community.
The boom-bust cycle is a key characteristic of capitalist economies, where the economy grows during the boom (ie. fracking development), and shrinks during the bust (the resource has been fully collected). People lose their jobs, and investors lose money, leading to economic insecurity.
One inequality following these energy related boom-bust cycles includes pollution and abandoned infrastructure, which results in environmental hazards that were not previously harming these communities. These combined factors result in declining house equity values, which are a primary means of growing wealth in these communities.
The faulty application of social and economic justification practices across natural resource extraction regions cause harm to future generations by promoting rapid energy development without considering their negative consequences. It is important that we prioritize the long-term effects of energy development on communities and the environment.
One way that the state and region should prioritize long-term effects of energy development is by turning to sustainable development and green energy infrastructure. Reimagine Appalachia is a coalition of organizations in the Appalachian region. They created a blueprint for federal investments that help repurpose shuttered coal plants and turn them into eco-industrial parks, while also relying on skilled, local workers and farmers to offer hope for the region.
This blueprint highlights the importance of investing in the public by providing union jobs to historically underserved individuals including black, indigenous, women, and low-wage workers, as well as moving fossil fuel workers into the green energy sector. The blueprint also aims to boost the electrical grid while aiming to: “Reforest the region, restore wetlands, promote regenerative agriculture and eco-tourism while simultaneously absorbing greenhouse gasses with natural landscapes.” The future can be much brighter when energy works with our environment and people, instead of against it.
Clean water is essential for drinking water, sanitation, and healthy communities. There are many examples of non-consumptive water uses, meaning the water is used, treated, and returned to the environment. However, unconventional fracking water use is consumptive, meaning the hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater used across the Marcellus shale formation each year are permanently removed from our water cycle.
Concerns around fracking freshwater consumption stretch beyond the local, small scale ecosystems losing water. The confounded effects of water yield decline, population growth, failing infrastructure, and nearby fracking activities threaten the health and financial well-being of downstream residents, and particularly environmental justice communities already overburdened by pollution.
References & Where to Learn More
- Read more articles in this series:
- Watch the research presentation featuring Kat Wilson, FracTracker Environmental Health Fellow, on the impacts of fracking on surface water in Pennsylvania
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