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Drillers' water needs raise concerns about supplies; Agency prevents frackers from sucking creeks dry

The Marcellus Shale natural gas industry has a huge thirst for water. To hydraulically fracture a single gas well requires upward of a thousand tanker-trucks of water.

And so during the summer, when some streams here in gas-rich northern Pennsylvania naturally turn into trickles, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission pays close attention to ensure that drilling interests don't suck the state's creeks dry.

The commission, an interstate agency responsible for managing the Susquehanna watershed, this summer has suspended withdrawals from as many as 40 permitted locations because of seasonal low flows. Most of the suspended locations affect gas drillers.

But the shale-gas industry, now moving rapidly from an exploratory to a production phase, has hardly missed a beat. Fracking continues, largely unabated.

The commission allows drillers to withdraw up to 98 million gallons per day at 142 locations, though in reality, the industry uses far less than what it is allowed, the commission says. The permitted amounts are based on elaborate computations tied to historical stream flows. When stream levels fall below a certain level, withdrawals must stop.

Anticipating the seasonal fluctuations, natural gas operators have built vast networks of impoundments -- plastic-lined ponds -- to store water from the rainy seasons.

"The natural gas industry is trying to capture some of the large spring flows because they know they can't take water all summer," said Paula Ballaron, the commission's manager of policy implementation and outreach.

But drillers can continue to pump water out of larger rivers even in the summer because the volumes that the commission allows are small compared with the total flow.

Public confusion about where the drillers can legally withdraw water in the summer -- and where it is banned -- has caused an increase in complaints to the commission. The agency has three inspectors based in Sayre. They prowl the basin looking for violators.

"Since the drilling started, we get calls from some people who claim the river flows have never been lower than this," said Eric R. Roof, the commission's director of compliance. "People are very concerned."

Most complaints are unfounded, he said. Withdrawals that the public reports as suspicious turn out to be legal pumping by municipal road crews, garden centers and nurseries that are allowed to withdraw small amounts of water. Gas drillers have sufficient, metered withdrawal points to meet their needs.

The business of withdrawing water is more complicated than simply inserting a hose into the river and pumping. The commission requires drillers to document and meter the withdrawals, and to pay for them.

Chesapeake Energy Corp., the state's largest driller and among the most active in Bradford County, operates a withdrawal point on the Susquehanna River in Wysox that is unaffected by the commission's dry-weather "pass-by" flow restrictions.

Chesapeake's pump station, drawing water from an intake buried on the riverbed, fills five towering 21,000-gallon tanks nearby, while a parade of trucks waits to fill up at four adjacent computer-controlled stations. It takes about 10 minutes to fill a 3,360-gallon tanker-truck. Tractor-trailer tankers, which hold 4,620 gallons, take a little longer.

When the metered withdrawals reach the site's daily limit of about one million gallons -- enough to fill more than 200 trucks -- the system automatically shuts down until midnight.

The commission estimates that the industry, based on projected drilling, will need about 30 million gallons a day. By comparison, suppliers of public water in the basin consume 325 million gallons a day, and power plants require 190 million gallons a day for coolant. A single nuclear reactor proposed in Luzerne County would require 30 million gallons of water a day.

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