Can trout be protected while quenching the gas industry’s thirst?

A stream running dry during the summer drought.

It has been a hot and dry summer across the country. As a result, high temperatures and minimal precipitation this past winter and spring have left some eastern coldwater streams in distress.   Streams and creeks in the Susquehanna River Basin,a 27,500 square-mile basin that encompasses parts of New York, Maryland and about half of Pennsylvania,are facing additional increased pressure from water withdrawals that are occurring to support natural gas development in Pennsylvania.

Last August, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC),an interstate agency charged with overseeing water use in the basin,twice suspended water withdrawals.  The SRBC took this action because stream levels were extremely low and could prove lethal to aquatic life.  This year, the SRBC has already temporarily suspended 17 water withdrawals in April, 37 in June and 64 withdrawals in July.  Many of these withdrawals were occurring on small headwater streams or high quality trout streams, such as the popular angling destination, Pine Creek.

Now, in August, we can expect that streams will continue to drop below healthy levels.  So, what about trout?  How will they fare if streams continue to dry up while the demand for water for drilling persists?  Earlier this year, the SRBC released a new low flow protection policy to address this very issue.  The new policy sets minimum standards for streamflows that are based on a seasonal, monthly basis—rather than a yearly average—to preserve the natural variable flow of streams.

SRBC also has special protections for headwater areas:  water withdrawals are prohibited from any stream that has a drainage area of less than 50 square miles.  This means that 40,000 of the 48,000 stream miles in the Susquehanna River basin will be off limits for withdrawals.   By directing water withdrawals toward the larger streams and rivers, the policy is helping to keep water in small streams and protect trout and other aquatic species.

On more than one occasion, TU has been told by gas drillers that water is being withdrawn from larger streams and rivers for drilling, and that because 70% of all drilling wastewater is being recycled, the demand for fresh water has significantly decreased.   So, the new SRBC policy could be a win-win situation, right?  Water is left in small headwater streams for trout and the industry can get the water it needs from larger rivers and streams.

Unfortunately, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas industry-based coalition, doesn’t see it that way. Thecoalition is now challenging the SRBC policy as being too restrictive and not based upon science.  Yet the Marcellus Shale Coalition states that the industry “implements the state-of-the-art environmental protections across our operations.” The disconnect is glaringly obvious.

This doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. The SRBC policy is one of the best ways to protect trout and fishing, while still allowing for the responsible development of Marcellus Shale gas.   TU will continue to fight for strong streamflow protections across the Marcellus Shale region and we hope the gas industry will live up to their own words.

---Katy Dunlap, Eastern Water Project Director

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