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Water supplies article

Risks to Water Supplies in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this series of articles on the Susquehanna River Basin, FracTracker has explored the relationship between oil and gas extraction and the overall health of the watershed relative to oil and gas extraction impacts. We began with a basic overview of likely relationships, followed by an analysis of oil and gas violations relative to resources available for monitoring water quality changes. In the most recent article we assessed the corresponding effects of extraction on deforestation and habitat loss. With the rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling over the past decade, many have also formed legitimate concerns about threats to public and private water supplies. In the final article of the series we look closely at this issue, at the complexities of assessing risks to water supplies, while also highlighting recent research shedding new light on the nature of these risks.

Pennsylvania’s Hydrological System

The Susquehanna River is home to more than 3.3 million people who depend on the river and its tributaries for drinking water. The basin also feeds thousands of businesses that require water for their operations, such as manufacturing facilities, farms, golf courses, and more. In some instances, water supplies are fed by groundwater wells, which are in turn fed by underground aquifers of different depths. In other cases, water supplies are drawn from intake points in nearby lakes, rivers, and streams.

Map of PA's groundwater aquifer system.

Figure 1: Map of PA’s groundwater aquifer system.

While many believe underground and surface water systems are somehow discrete, this is far from the case. Groundwater is a major contributor to rivers, lakes, and wetlands – as they are all connected through the hydrological cycle. Some precipitation runs directly into streams. But much of it filters through soil and rock into shallow and deep aquifers. Aquifers then carry water over the course of months, years, and even centuries, into larger water bodies. The most common discharge points are from springs and from low-lying wetlands. The figures above (figure 1) and below (figure 2) illustrate Pennsylvania’s four major aquifer types, compiled by Penn State Extension.

Figure 3: Types of groundwater aquifers in PA.

Figure 2: Types of groundwater aquifers in PA.

Assessing Groundwater Supply Risks

Managing the overall health of the hydrological cycle is of critical importance to the 3.3 million people who live in the Susquehanna River Basin. However, oil and gas extraction poses significant risks to the state’s water sources. As we have detailed in prior articles in this series, accidents and spills can cause chemicals and hydraulic fracturing fluids to run off into nearby watersheds. Growing evidence also suggests that groundwater can be contaminated by migrating hydraulic fracturing fluids.

Figure 4: Number of household and public water supply groundwater wells by state (DCNR).

Figure 3: Number of household and public water supply groundwater wells by state (DCNR).

In one study, conducted by Columbia University in 2016, researchers found elevated levels of dissolved calcium, chlorine, sulfates and iron in lowland drinking wells within one kilometer of a drilling site compared to baseline averages. In lowland wells more than a kilometer away, they found elevated levels of methane, sodium, and manganese. Elevated levels dropped off in wells on higher ground, which suggests the hydraulic fracturing process affects shallow and deep groundwater sources along different timelines.

According to the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for total number of groundwater wells, second for number of private drinking wells, and third for number of public water supplies dependent on groundwater wells (figure 4). However, determining how many groundwater wells may be at risk to oil and gas extraction is complicated for a variety of reasons. First, DCNR acknowledges that only about half (480,000) of the 1 million groundwater wells in the state are documented. Registration of groundwater wells only began in 1955, and detailed information including latitude and longitudinal coordinates only came into being in the 1980s. These records are now maintained in the PA Groundwater Inventory System (PAGWIS). It is worth noting that the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does not regulate private drinking water wells. They are only required to respond to pollution complaints.

Correlating O&G Wells to Complaints Data

Despite these data gaps, we can still learn a lot from the wells that are documented in PAGWIS. For instance, we compared the location of groundwater wells to oil and gas related complaints and found some interesting correlations. The below map can be used to explore these relationships.

Map of at-risk groundwater wells, public water supplies, and citizen complaints


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The first stage our analysis involved narrowing the PGWIS registered groundwater wells in the Susquehanna Basin to those that are actively used for drinking water, agriculture, and irrigation (66,306 total). We then limited to those within 1 kilometer of an oil and gas well, essentially mirroring the distances used by the Columbia University study. We found 2,551 groundwater wells within this “risk zone” of 1 kilometer.

For our second stage, we utilized research conducted by Public Herald, an investigative reporting team that spent three years reviewing oil and gas related complaints submitted to the DEP from 2004-2016. They found 9,442 total complaints, of which 43% were water related (surface and groundwater), and that the frequency of complaints track with the rise and fall of unconventional oil and gas development (figure 5).

Figure 5: Relationship of complaints to O&G development (Public Herald).

Figure 4: Relationship of complaints to O&G development (Public Herald).

From the Public Herald dataset, we found 1,573 total complaints were in the Susquehanna River Basin, of which 65% were water related complaints — a much higher percentage than the larger dataset’s average. We then compare the location of these complaints to our “risk zone” groundwater wells and found a statistically significant correlation between the number of groundwater wells within 1km of oil and gas activity and higher numbers of complaints by residents. What do these findings tell us?

In short, where we see more groundwater wells in proximity to an oil and gas well, we also see more water related complaints to the DEP.

The below graph illustrates this relationship (figure 6).

Figure 6: Relationship of complaints to at-risk groundwater wells.

Figure 5: Relationship of complaints to at-risk groundwater wells.

Groundwater to Surface Water Risks

DCNR estimates that Pennsylvania’s streams and wetlands get about 2/3 of their flow from groundwater sources. Meanwhile, there are 786 public water suppliers in the Susquehanna River Basin that are fed by different arrangements of groundwater and surface water sources. These suppliers are included in the interactive map for reference.

Assessing risks to public water supply systems is equally complicated to that of groundwater wells. The DEP regulates public water suppliers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but the general public is not permitted to know the location of actual water sources or intake points due to security risks. This restriction poses a problem for nongovernmental organizations when doing analyses that would benefit from knowing the locations of these source points. Nevertheless, like our breakdown of risk zone groundwater wells, we can still learn a great deal from what we do know of public water supplies.

Figure 6: Wellsboro, PA, public water supply along with O&G wells and water-related citizen complaints in the supply watershed.

Figure 6: Wellsboro, PA, public water supply with O&G wells and citizen complaints in the supply’s watershed.

For instance, the town of Wellsboro, in Tioga County, is home to an estimated 3,300 people. The Wellsboro Municipal Authority supplies water to Wellsboro residents as well as to 1,000 people in surrounding Charleston and Delmar Townships. According to DEP records, groundwater and surface water sources for this system come from Hamilton Lake and tributaries of the Charleston Creek Watershed, much of which is designated as high-quality coldwater fisheries. Nevertheless, there are seven unconventional oil and gas wells in this watershed, one of which is only 400ft from Charleston Creek, just upstream from Hamilton Lake.

The area is also one of the brightest hot-spots for complaints to the DEP in the Public Herald dataset, with 40 water related complaints in Charleston and Delmar townships.

These relationships should be of particular concern to residents who believe their water is protected from extraction industry activities. In addition, while recent research suggests homes values can be negatively affected in neighborhoods dependent on private well water near drilling activity, correlations between potential groundwater and surface water pollution suggest that any changes in home value are more a matter of perceived rather than actual risk—homes on public water supplies should also be considered at risk in communities experiencing extraction.

Conclusion

Returning to the hydrological cycle, we can assume that pollutants from oil and gas extraction, like precipitation, will eventually find their way into larger water bodies, either directly through runoff into watershed tributaries or through groundwater migrations. While this article has primarily focused on the Pennsylvania headwaters of the Susquehanna, home to 570,000 residents, and risks to their water sources, groundwater complaints are not the exclusive problem of residents who are dependent on private drinking water wells. “We all live downstream” as the saying goes, and those who rely on the watershed for their drinking water and other water resource needs throughout the watershed should be concerned by the correlations illustrated in our analysis.


By Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

Feature image: Hydrologic cycle graphic by Watershed-Watch.org

Forest fragmentation in PA

Forest Fragmentation and O&G Development in PA’s Susquehanna Basin

In this forest fragmentation analysis, FracTracker looked at existing vegetation height in the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The vegetation height data is available from LANDFIRE, a resource used by multiple federal agencies to assess wildfire potential by categorizing the vegetation growth in 30 by 30 meter pixels into different categories. In the portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Basin where we looked, there were 29 total categories based on vegetation height. For ease of analysis, we have consolidated those into eight categories, including roads, developed land, forest, herbs, shrubs, crops, mines and quarries, and open water.

Methods

We compared the ratio of the total number of each pixel type to the type that was found at vertical and horizontal wells in the region. In this experiment, we hypothesized that we would see evidence of deforestation in the areas where oil and gas development is present. Per our correspondence with LANDFIRE staff, the vegetation height data represents a timeframe of about 2014, so in this analysis, we focused on active wells that were drilled prior to that date. We found that the pixels on which the horizontal wells were located had a significantly different profile type than the overall pixel distribution, whereas conventional wells had a more modest departure from the general characteristics of the region.

Figure 1 - Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

Figure 1 – Vegetation profile of the northern portion of Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin. The area is highly impacted by O&G development, a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years.

In Figure 1, we see that the land cover profile where vertical wells (n=6,198) are present is largely similar to the overall distribution of pixels for the entire study area (n=40,897,818). While these wells are more than six times more likely to be on areas classified as mines, quarries, or barren, it is surprising that the impact is not even more pronounced. In terms of forested land, there is essentially no change from the background, with both at about 73%. However, the profile for horizontal wells (n=3,787) is only 51% forested, as well as being four times more likely than the background to be categorized as herbs, which are defined in this dataset as having a vegetation height of around one meter.

Why Aren’t the Impacts Even More Pronounced?

While the impacts are significant, particularly for horizontal wells, it is a bit surprising that evidence of deforestation isn’t even more striking. We know, for example, that unconventional wells are usually drilled in multi-well pads that frequently exceed five acres of cleared land, so why aren’t these always classified as mines, quarries, and barren land, for example? There are several factors that can help to explain this discrepancy.

First, it must be noted that at 900 square meters, each pixel represents almost a quarter of acre, so the extent of these pixels will not always match with the area of disturbance. And in many cases, the infrastructure for older vertical wells is completely covered by the forest canopy, so that neither well pad nor access road is visible from satellite imagery.


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The map above shows horizontal and vertical wells in a portion of Centre County, Pennsylvania, an area within our study region. Note that many of the vertical wells, represented by purple dots, appear to be in areas that are heavily forested, whereas all of the horizontal wells (yellow dots) are on a defined well pad in the lower right part of the frame. Panning around to other portions of Centre County, we find that vertical wells are often in a visible clearing, but are frequently near the edge, so that the chances of the 30 by 30 meter pixel that they fall into is much more likely to be whatever it would have been if the well pad were not there.

We must also consider that this dataset has some limitations. First of all, it was built to be a tool for wildfire management, not as a means to measure deforestation. Secondly, there are often impacts that are captured by the tool that were not exactly on the well site. For this reason, it would make sense to evaluate the area around the well pad in future versions of the analysis.

Figure 2 - A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

Figure 2 – A close up of a group of wells in the study area. Note that the disturbed land (light grey) does not always correspond exactly with the well locations.

In Figure 2, we see a number of light grey areas –representing quarries, strip mines, and gravel pits –with an O&G well just off to the side. Such wells did not get classified as being on deforested land in this analysis.

And finally, after clarifying the LANDFIRE metadata with US Forest Service personnel involved in the project, we learned that while the map does represent vegetation cover circa 2014, it is actually build on satellite data collected in 2001, which has subsequently been updated with a detailed algorithm. However, the project is just beginning a reboot of the project, using imagery from 2015 and 2016. This should lead to much more accurate analyses in the future.

Why Forest Fragmentation Matters

The clearing of forests for well pads, pipelines, access roads, and other O&G infrastructure that has happened to date in the Susquehanna Basin is only a small fraction of the planned development. The industry operates at full capacity, there could be tens of thousands of new unconventional wells drilled on thousands of well pads in the region through 2030, according to estimates by the Nature Conservancy. They have also calculated an average of 1.65 miles of gathering lines from the well pad to existing midstream infrastructure. With a typical right-of-way being 100 feet wide, these gathering lines would require clearing 20 acres. It isn’t unusual for the total disturbance for a single well pad and the associated access road to exceed ten acres, making the total disturbance about 30 acres per well pad. Based on the vegetation distribution of the region, we can expect that 22 of these acres, on average, are currently forested land. Taking all of these factors into consideration, a total disturbance of 100,000 to 200,000 acres in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin due to oil and gas extraction, processing, and transmission may well be a conservative estimate, depending on energy choices we make in the coming years.

This forest fragmentation has a number of deleterious effects on the environment. First, many invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle and Japanese knotweed, tend to thrive in recently disturbed open areas, where competing native plants have been removed. The practice also threatens numerous animal species that thrive far from the forest’s edge, including a variety of native song birds. The disturbed lands create significant runoff into nearby rivers and streams, which can have an impact on aquatic life. And the cumulative release of carbon into the atmosphere is staggering – consider that the average acre of forest in the United States contains 158,000 pounds of organic carbon per acre. As the area is 73% forested, the total cumulative impact could result in taking 5.8 to 11.6 million tons of organic carbon out of forested storage. Much of this carbon will find its way into the atmosphere, along with the hydrocarbons that are purposefully being extracted from drilling operations.

Susquehanna River Basin map article #2

Violations and Monitoring in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River Basin

The Susquehanna River is a 444-mile long waterway extending from the area around Cooperstown, New York to the Chesapeake Bay. In Pennsylvania, the basin includes more than 37,000 miles of streams that feed into the river, which capture the precipitation of more than 20,000 square miles of land, and is home to over 3.3 million people.

The region has been heavily impacted by oil and natural gas extraction in recent years; more than 5,500 unconventional wells and roughly 13,500 conventional wells have been drilled in the PA segment of the basin since 2000. Unconventional wells, in particular, have brought industrial-scaled activity, pollution, and waste products to a wide area of the basin, with especially heavy development occurring in three counties along Pennsylvania’s northern tier – Bradford, Susquehanna, and Tioga.

Several governmental agencies are involved with monitoring impacts to this massive watershed. This article focuses on the Pennsylvania portion of the basin, and examines how capable agency-run monitoring efforts are in capturing oil and gas (O&G) related pollution events. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the US Geological Survey (USGS), and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) maintain a combined network of 274 monthly “grab sample” monitoring sites and 58 continuous data loggers in the Pennsylvania portion of the river basin. Meanwhile, between January 1, 2000 and February 7, 2017, the DEP logged 6,522 on the O&G violations compliance report within the same region. More than three out of every four of these violations have been assessed to unconventional wells, even though only one out of every four active wells in the basin is categorized as such.

Map of O&G Monitoring & Violations in PA’s Susquehanna River Basin


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Limitations of Monitoring Efforts

Grab samples obtained from official monitoring locations are the preferred method for regulatory purposes in understanding the long-term health of the river system. Researchers can test for any number of analytes from samples that are collected in-stream, but analyzed in certified laboratories. However, samples from these locations are collected periodically – usually once per month – and therefore are very likely to miss the effects of a significant spill or issue that may impact surface water chemistry for a number of hours or days before being diluted and washing downstream.

Continuous data loggers give regulators a near real-time assessment of what is happening in selected points in the basin, usually at 15-minute intervals. While there are numerous events that contribute to fluctuations in these measurements, these data loggers would be the most likely instruments available to register an event impacting the surface water within the basin. However, there are unique issues with data loggers. For instance, available data from these data loggers are much more limited in scope, as temperature, pH, and conductivity are typically the only available analytes. In addition, because the analysis occurs on site, the results carry less weight than laboratory results would. Finally, even though data loggers collect data at rapid intervals, only some are equipped to send data real-time to agency offices. Some data loggers must be manually collected on a periodic basis by program managers.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for monitoring in the Susquehanna River Basin is that it is simply not practical to monitor in all places likely to be impacted by oil and gas operations. Testing within the jurisdiction of the Susquehanna River Basin is actually fairly extensive when compared to other regions, such as the Ohio River Basin. The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission – the equivalent of the SRBC for the Ohio River Basin – only monitors basic analytes like total dissolved solids at 29 locations, all at or near the main stem of the river. However, none of the agencies monitoring water quality in the Susquehanna River Basin have capacity to test everywhere. On average, there is one testing location for every 111 miles of rivers and streams within the basin.

Case Studies

If agency-based monitoring is so limited, then the important question is: How well do these efforts capture oil and gas-related impacts? Some violations are more likely to impact surface water quality than others. This article takes a closer look at some of the bigger problem areas within the basin, including the Dimock region in Susquehanna County, Leroy Township in Bradford County, and Bell Township in Clearfield County.

Dimock

Map of O&G violations and water monitoring near Dimock, PA

O&G violations and water monitoring near Dimock, PA. Note that multiple violations can occur at the same location. Click to expand map.

The highest concentration of oil and gas violations in the Susquehanna Basin is located in the townships of Dimock and Springville, in Susquehanna County, PA, with a total of 591 incidents reported on the compliance report. This makes the region the highest concentration of O&G violations in the entire state. Many of these violations are related to the systemic failure of well integrity, resulting in the contamination of numerous groundwater supplies. In terms of how these might affect surface water, 443 of the violations are in areas that drain into the Thomas Creek-Meshoppen Creek subwatershed by the southern edge of Springville Township, while most of the rest of the violations drain into the parallel West Branch of Meshoppen Creek.

The USGS operates a monthly monitoring location in the middle of the cluster of violations, at the confluence of Burdick and Meshoppen creeks, just north of the Dimock’s southern border. While this location might seem ideal at first, only 180 of the 443 violations in the subwatershed are upstream of the grab sample site. There is another water monitoring location that captures all of these violations in the Meshoppen subwatershed, but it is more than 15 miles downstream. (link to EJ article about Dimock)

Leroy Township

Map of O&G Violations and monitoring near Leroy Township, PA

O&G Violations and monitoring near Leroy Township, PA. Click to expand map.

Compared to the huge amount of oil and gas violations throughout the Dimock area, Leroy Township in Bradford County looks relatively quiet. It also appears to be well covered by monitoring locations, including a data logger site near the western edge of the township, a centrally located monthly monitoring location, as well as another monthly grab sample site upstream on Towanda Creek, just beyond the eastern boundary in Franklin Township.

And yet, this area was hit hard in the early part of the decade by two significant spills. On April 19, 2011, Chesapeake Appalachia lost control of the Atlas 2H well, with thousands of gallons of flowback fluid spilling onto the countryside and into the nearby Towanda Creek.

A little over a year later on July 4, 2012, a second major spill in the township saw 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid hit the ground. According to the DEP compliance report, this did not make it into the waterways, despite the gas well being located only about 550 feet from Towanda Creek, and less than 300 feet from another unnamed tributary.

Both incidents were within a reasonable distance of downstream monitoring locations. However, as these are grab sample sites that collect data once per month, they can only offer a limited insight into how Towanda Creek and its tributaries were impacted by these notable O&G related spills.

Bell Township

Map of O&G violations and monitoring near Bell Township, PA. Susquehanna River Basin project

O&G violations and monitoring near Bell Township, PA. Click to expand map.

Bell Township is a small community in Clearfield County along the banks of the West Branch Susquehanna River. The northwestern portion of the township ultimately drains to the Ohio River, but all of the violations in Bell Township are within the Susquehanna River Basin.

Two significant incidents occurred in the township in 2016. On February 18, 2016, Alliance Petroleum Corp lost control of the McGee 11 OG Well, located less than 250 feet from Deer Run. According to the oil and gas compliance report, control of the well was regained five days later, after releasing unspecified quantities of gas, produced fluid, and crude oil. On December 5th of the same year, Exco Resources was cited for allowing 30 barrels (1,260 gallons) of produced fluid to spill at the Clyde Muth M-631 Wellpad in Bell Township.

A United States Geological Survey monthly monitoring location along the West Branch Susquehanna in nearby Greenwood Township is upstream, and could capture the effects of spills throughout much of Bell Township. However, the incident at the Clyde Muth well pad occurred in the Curry Run subwatershed, which meets up with the West Branch Susquehanna downstream of the monitoring location, so any pollution events in that area will not be reflected by monitoring efforts.

Conclusions

In the case of Dimock and Springville townships, we see how official water monitoring efforts capture only a fraction of the notorious cluster of wells that have resulted in hundreds of violations over the past decade. There could scarcely be a better candidate for systematic observation, and yet only a single grab sample site covers the immediate vicinity. Leroy Township does not have the same quantity of impacts as Dimock, but it did see one the worst blowouts in the recent history of O&G operations in Pennsylvania. The area is relatively well covered by grab samples sites, but due to the monthly sampling schedule, these locations would still be unlikely to capture significant changes in water quality. In Bell Township, much of the area is upstream of a monthly grab sample site, but the nearest downstream monitoring location to a major spill of produced fluid that occurred here is more than 17 miles away from the incident as the crow flies.

It should be noted that there are a number of industries and activities that contribute to water pollution in Pennsylvania, and as a result, the monitoring efforts are not specifically designed to capture oil and gas impacts. However, the compliance record shows heavy impacts from oil and gas wells in the basin, particularly from modern unconventional wells.

While the network of government-operated manual monitoring locations and data logger sites are fairly extensive in Susquehanna River Basin, these efforts are not sufficient to capture the full extent of oil and gas impacts in the region. Finding evidence of a small to medium sized spill at a site with monthly testing is unlikely, as contaminated water doesn’t stay in place in a dynamic river system. Data loggers also have a limited capacity, but are a useful tool for identifying substantial changes in water chemistry, and could therefore be employed to identify the presence of substantial spills. As such, it might be beneficial for additional data loggers to be distributed throughout the basin, particularly in areas that are heavily affected by the oil and gas industry. Furthermore, given resource gaps and staff cuts within agencies tasked with protecting the river basin, agencies should strongly consider utilizing networks of volunteers to augment their limited monitoring networks.

By Matt Kelso, Manager of Data and Technology, FracTracker Alliance

For the Susquehanna River Basin Impacts Project

An Introduction to the Susquehanna River Basin Impacts Project

By the FracTracker Alliance
In partnership with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club
and Clean Water Action 

Looking at a map of Pennsylvania, three major rivers span the Commonwealth — the Ohio River in the West, the Susquehanna River in the middle of PA, and the Delaware River in the East. The Delaware River Watershed benefits from the active oversight and management of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) and the Ohio is managed by Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO). The multi-state effort to protect the Susquehanna River is known as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC).

These agencies differ greatly in how they oversee protections of their respective watersheds, particularly in the context of oil and gas development. For instance, the DRBC engages in a range of activities related to water quantity protection (like water supply allocation and water conservation), water quality, regulatory review and permitting, watershed-wide planning, flood mitigation and drought management, and recreational activities. Meanwhile, ORSANCO and the SRBC interpret their responsibilities very narrowly, primarily focusing on managing issues related to discharge standards in the case of ORSANCO, and water quantity in the case of the SRBC.

Major watershed boundaries in PA, with the Susquehanna River Basin shown in pale green. Source: DCNR

In this new series of articles, FracTracker Alliance, in partnership with the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter and Clean Water Action, takes a closer look at the Susquehanna River Watershed and its many challenges related to industrial development, including deforestation and sedimentation issues, nutrient loading from poor agricultural practices, sewer and stormwater runoff. A significant component of Susquehanna River Basin impacts can be attributed to expanding oil and gas development. How will the Susquehanna River Watershed withstand future impacts from the oil and gas industry given the SRBC’s limited oversight? A first step in understanding the problem is to look at the state of the watershed today.

Oil & Gas in the Susquehanna River Watershed

As part of the ongoing Marcellus Shale oil and gas boom, nearly 5,500 unconventional wells on roughly 2,000 well pads have been drilled in the Susquehanna River Watershed since 2007. According to the Nature Conservancy, shale gas companies could drill 27,600 additional wells in the Susquehanna River basin by 2030, which would result in approximately 6,900 well pads (assuming four wells per pad, a relatively conservative number given recent trends where up to a dozen wells are being drilled on a single pad). These additional 4,900 well pads represent 31,850 acres of disturbed lands for the pads and access roads alone. Overall, the Nature Conservancy believes that up to 110,000 acres of forested land could be cleared in the Susquehanna River Watershed by 2030. In addition to well pads and access roads, one must also account for the impacts of associated pipelines. Estimates suggest that 12-15 acres of gathering line are installed per acre of well pad.

This explosive growth of the shale drilling industry, combined with declining resources for regulatory oversight, would complicate regional watershed management strategies. A growing body of evidence suggests that watersheds near hydraulic fracturing operations can be impacted by improper waste disposal, trucking accidents, migration of drilling fluids, as well as problems related to land disturbance such as pipeline and access road stream crossings, sedimentation and runoff (needs a reference). And while there are two major water monitoring programs operating in the Susquehanna River, one run by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) and the other operated by the SRBC, significant questions remain about their ability to assess the Susquehanna River’s water quality. These concerns primarily stem from the infrequent and patchwork-like coverage of their sampling regimes, as well as inconsistencies in indicators measured at different sites.

Existing Water Monitoring Efforts

Watershed testing is key to understanding how industrial development affects water quality. It also significantly informs mitigation strategies. In this first map of the series (below), we have put together several layers to help illustrate the state of water testing in the Susquehanna River Basin. This map can be used to obtain summary information about unconventional oil and gas activity and monitoring efforts at the watershed level by clicking on individual features.

Note that there are two separate layers on this map depicting summary data — one outlined in dark green and one in light green, both at HUC-08 level. The dark green outlines are in PA only and contain oil and gas summaries of wells and violations. The light green outlines show agency-based monitoring activity, and are not restricted to PA boundaries. The reason for the two layers is that states classify oil and gas wells differently and so cannot be combined easily.

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The Susquehanna River Basin has over 49,000 miles of waterways, according to the SRBC. While it may not be possible to fully document the impacts that the oil and gas industry has on the basin, there are some efforts underway to chronicle changes to the river system. In this map, we look at the efforts of governmental and quasi-governmental agencies to test the waters throughout the region, which range from periodic grab samples to automated data loggers that constantly evaluate several measures of water quality. There are advantages to both methods, as data loggers can capture short term spikes in conductivity, for example, that monthly sampling would likely miss altogether. However, grab sampling allows for a more in-depth analysis of the water in a laboratory than what the data loggers can provide.

While oil and gas is the focus of the map, it is not the only concern of the SRBC. Thus, considerable testing occurs in areas that are not seeing drilling activity. The drilling regions are shown on the map as a great orange arc, extending from Indiana County in the west-central part of Pennsylvania all the way to Susquehanna county in the Northern Tier. If you zoom in on this region, data for individual unconventional wells will become visible, along with permits for wells that have yet to be been drilled, and violations that have been issued by DEP.

Clusters of Development and Oversight

In some regions of the Susquehanna basin, there are significant clusters of oil and gas activity without a corresponding governmental monitoring regimen. Other areas have significant monitoring coverage. In many cases, periodic grab samples are taken from the same sites as data loggers – and may therefore appear twice on our map – to capture both aspects of monitoring activity. Our map can be used to find quick summary data for a given watershed.  For example, the Upper Susquehanna-Tunkhannock watershed is being monitored with 53 testing sites and nine data loggers. The same region has 2,178 wells, and 2,347 violations associated with these wells.

We can also use the map to focus on concerns at different scales. The cluster of drilling activity in Ulysses Township, seen below, resulted in a number of violations (shown in yellow). Due to historical impact of the oil and gas industry in this sub-watershed, additional monitoring locations might be called for.

While we think that it is important to protect all the Susquehanna’s waters, certain areas are more fragile than others. For instance, headwater streams that are designated as high quality (HQ) or exceptional value (EV) are vital to the overall health of the river system and their protection is required by Pennsylvania law. However, many headwaters streams have no monitoring despite heavy oil and gas drilling, as can be seen in the below map. We have included HQ/EV designated streams on the map, although due to the large amount of data these streams are not displayed by default. They can be seen by activating the layer.

Broader Implications

The Susquehanna River provides drinking water to 4.1 million people, including residents in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. In addition, through water that is diverted to areas outside the watershed, it is estimated that the Susquehanna also serves as a drinking water supply for 2 million people in more populated areas such as Baltimore, MD and Chester County, PA. With clean drinking water hanging in the balance, and the potential build-out of thousands more natural gas well pads in the watershed, it is more important than ever to understand how oil and gas activity could affect the watershed.

The Pennsylvania Constitution reminds us of our right to clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the environment. Prior to the adoption of the Environmental Rights Amendment — 80 years ago this year — and long before the federal Clean Water Act, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the state level Clean Streams Law in recognition of the need to protect the integrity of our valuable aquatic resources. In the spirit of this tradition to lead on clean water issues, the SRBC, Pennsylvania, and surrounding states must commit to putting the protection and preservation of the Susquehanna River watershed at the forefront of decision-making within the basin.

In future installments of this series, we seek to reveal gaps in watershed and land management plans in order to evaluate what these risks mean for the people and environments of the Susquehanna River Basin. The mapping and analysis provided in this series will be used to frame a series of conversations throughout the Basin with the goal of encouraging concerned residents to become more involved in public discussions about watershed management planning. Further, this project will result in recommendations for tangible solutions to filling oversight and management gaps and communicate these findings to relevant agencies. Only with adequate information can the public ensure strong protections for this life-sustaining waterway. Recognizing the important work that the SRBC has done in recent years, we also hope to identify areas where the Commission can direct additional resources to analyzing the cumulative impacts of shale gas development and expand their oversight strategies.

Top: fair use image by Nicholas A. Tonelli

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