Commission moves to formalize fracking prohibition in Delaware River basin

By Keith Curley

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has begun a rulemaking process to protect one of our most valuable fisheries from the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, formalizing a de facto moratorium in place since 2010.

Across the country, Trout Unlimited advocates for responsible energy development, which involves protecting the highest quality habitats and ensuring that, where development does occur, adequate regulations are in place to prevent harm to water quality and coldwater habitat.

When natural gas development surged in the Marcellus shale formation, TU produced a report highlighting “10 Special Places” in the Central Appalachian region that are critically important for fishing and hunting and deserve special attention from land management and regulatory agencies. Since then, four of those places have been put off limits to energy development—the George Washington-Jefferson and Monongahela National Forests, the Savage River, and Catskills Park.

The Upper Delaware River Basin is next in line for protection thanks to the DRBC’s rulemaking.

Concluding that fracking “presents risks, vulnerabilities and impacts to surface and ground water resources,” the five-member federal/interstate commission voted today to direct agency staff to begin drafting regulations that would include prohibitions on fracking. The regulations will also include provisions addressing other activities that could have harmful, far-reaching impacts: the storage, treatment, disposal, discharge, or transportation of fracking wastewater, and the withdrawal of water from the basin for natural gas development occurring elsewhere.

Representatives of New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware voted in favor of the move; the federal government, represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, voted against. New Jersey abstained.

The draft regulations will be issued by November 30, after which the commission will hold public hearings and accept written comments.

“We’ve long been concerned about the risks of natural gas development to water resources in the region, including in the Delaware River Basin, which is home to a world-class wild trout fishery that draws anglers from all over,” said David Kinney, TU’s mid-Atlantic policy director. “We support the DRBC’s efforts to keep clean water clean, and we’re looking forward to participating in this process to ensure continued protection of the watershed and its coldwater fisheries.”

The DRBC is charged with protecting water resources in a region that supplies drinking water to 15 million people and is home to significant coldwater resources. It has designated the entire non-tidal portion of the river as “Special Protection Waters.”

For nearly a decade, as Marcellus shale gas development has boomed across Pennsylvania, the Basin has been off-limits to drillers.

In 2009, the DRBC’s executive director determined that the agency had authority to review natural gas development in the watershed. Commissioners voted to await regulations before considering applications to drill. But in 2011, after a lengthy and contentious public comment period on draft rules, the commission cancelled a planned vote, effectively instituting a moratorium.

TU advocates for a thoughtful approach to natural gas development that would protect the Delaware’s water resources—including a wild trout fishery on the Upper Delaware that generates millions of dollars in economic activity for the region. Hydraulic fracturing requires millions of gallons of water per well, and the withdrawal, storage, and disposal of water for fracking can have significant impacts on streams and rivers if not properly managed.

We welcome the DRBC’s resolution and look forward to participating fully to ensure that the Delaware Basin’s coldwater resources receive the protections they deserve.

Keith Curley is Trout Unlimited’s vice president for Eastern Conservation.

By Mark Taylor. A native of rural southern Oregon, Mark Taylor has lived in Virginia since serving a stint as a ship-based naval officer in Norfolk. He joined the TU staff in 2014 after a 20-year run as a newspaper journalist, the final 16 as the outdoors editor of the Roanoke Times. A graduate of Northwestern University, he lives in Roanoke with his wife and, when they're home from college, his twin daughters.