Dry Spring Drives Gas Producers to Largest Rivers for Water

The State Journal
27 June 2012
By Pam Kasey

Places where shale gas operators can responsibly withdraw water for hydraulic fracturing are already few in this unusually dry early summer.

The online U.S. Drought Monitor puts conditions in three-quarters of West Virginia, all but the easternmost edge, at "abnormally dry."

It's not quite drought — yet.

But the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's online Water Withdrawal Guidance Tool says only the largest rivers are safe for withdrawals, and fewer all the time.

In the northern, central and western parts of the state where most of the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, takes place, withdrawals were acceptable on Tues., June 26, from the Tygart Valley River and Monongahela River; by the morning of Wed., June 27, they were not.

The only water body the tool now advises is safe for withdrawals in the region is the Ohio River.

DEP launched the guidance tool in 2010 in response to resident concerns about large withdrawals during dry periods. A user clicking on any of about 90 watersheds of interest receives withdrawal advice based on readings from a United States Geological Survey, or USGS, stream gauge.

Since August 2011, though, the online tool is mainly for residents, according to DEP Environmental Resources Analyst Jason Harmon.

Every gas well permit issued since emergency oil and gas rules went into effect at that time has a water management plan with specified surface water intake points and thresholds that are more strict than  the tool, said Harmon, who handles the water management plans for DEP with the oil and gas industry.

"Every surface water intake is assigned a reference USGS gauge and, before they can withdraw, they have to check the USGS web site and see what the actual live readings are on the stream," Harmon said. "Generally, the operator will run the same withdrawal site for long periods of time, so there's usually someone at the well site that will be familiar with the thresholds and communicate them to the drilling or fracking crews."

The industry has developed a practice of including several withdrawal sites in their water management plans.

"They'll have a preferred location close to the well site and a larger stream further away and a larger one further than that, and ultimately the Ohio River," Harmon said. "And of course they do include purchased water."

Residents continue to actively reference the Water Withdrawal Guidance Tool, Harmon said.

"I know that there are very concerned citizens' groups who monitor the tool religiously. We hear from them," he said. "We know that they are keeping an eye on the operations that are in their areas and these are the same people who do (Freedom of Information Act) requests for permits and know the thresholds assigned in the water management plans."

He said the industry has been receptive to the thresholds established in the water management plans.

"We've receive very little negativity from the industry ," he said. "Even though they're not allowed to withdraw, I think it gives them a sense of stewardship. It takes the guesswork out of it."

For residents who witness withdrawals they believe are out of line with the Water Withdrawal Guidance Tool, DEP suggests documenting the facts: the company, the location, the specifics of the activity observed and the date and time. Time-stamped photographs are especially helpful.

Report inappropriate gas industry withdrawals to DEP's Office of Oil and Gas at (304) 926-0450; inappropriate withdrawals by anyone may be reported to Environmental Enforcement at (304) 926-0470.