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Hydrofracking impacts water quantity, too

By Michael Clark - 16 May 2011 22:59:0 GMT
Hydrofracking impacts water quantity, too

Much of the debate swirling around hydrofracking is centered on its potential water quality impacts, thanks to recent findings in studies prepared by Duke University, as well as the omnipresent videos of folks lighting their tap water on fire. Industry debates these findings, but what is undeniable is the fact that hydrofracking requires large volumes of water, potential impacting local water availability and aquatic habitat. After all, the practice is actually called 'high volume hydraulic fracturing'.

The epicenter of water withdrawal issues is the Susqehenna and Delaware River basins, under which lies the massive Marcellus shale formation. Water withdrawals are regulated in these basins by river basin commissions. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which estimates that the average hydrofracked well in the basin required 2.8 million gallons of water, predicts future hydrofracking related withdrawals in the watershed may exceed 28 million gallons per day, a little less than the daily demand of Akron, OH. Similarly, the Delaware River Basin Commission predicts that withdrawals related to the practice may exceed 90 billion gallons over the next 10 - 20 years, which could pose a significant risk to the water supply of  the 15 million people, including New York City, who depend on the watershed for water.

Recognizing the risks to water availability, the commissions are developing new regulatory frameworks to manage hydrofracking related water withdrawals. And the State of New York recently passed a law mandating that all water withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons per day receive a permit from the New York Department of Conservation. Additionally, comments from Cornell on the state's Draft Environmental Impact Statement support the need for additional regulations in basins that are currently without watershed-specific water withdrawal requirements.

The key to regulating withdrawals is not only quantity limitations but timing and location. A Cornell study found that flow rate data indicated that there would be virtually no water available for withdrawal in 10 streams in the Susquehanna and Chemung basins during the month of August, a time when streams typically experience low flows. The key then is to ensure that the timing, volume, and location of withdrawals are permitted in such a way as to prevent adverse stream flow and water supply impacts.

Clearly, future regulations pertaining to hydrofracking will not only need to address water quality; water quantity related impacts will also need to be mitigated, through complex water withdrawal regulations that take into account timing, location, and quantity.

Unlike drinking water quality, which is regulated under federal law, water quantity is not, since water availability and allocation is largely a local issue. As a result, there will not be any easy fixes. States, cities, and towns will struggle with this issue, and what it might reveal is the inadequacy of using political boundaries as water management boundaries. This evolution in water management may be the silver lining in the cloud, as long as the quantity side of the issue garners the attention that the quality side gets.