Sometimes, when evaluating a river, size matters. If you need to supply 40 million people in seven states with drinking water, you would hope for a body of water that resembles the Colorado River—classified as an order seven watershed for its size and biological diversity. The Amazon river, the world’s largest, is an order 12 watershed.
Small rivers feed larger ones; are often home to unique, sometimes endangered species; and support small but vibrant ecosystems. Since small watersheds usually have more uniform conditions, given their size, they can be especially susceptible to dramatic changes in water levels.
Municipalities across the U.S. draw millions of gallons of water from watersheds for drinking, agriculture and, in some cases, fracking.
In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has on record 816 surface level water withdrawal locations designated for oil and gas operations. FracTracker, an advocacy group that analyzes oil and gas projects across the country, recently estimated that 40 percent of the watersheds facing withdrawals in Pennsylvania contain small streams.
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The freshwater these companies extract is the main ingredient in fracking fluid, a combination of water and proprietary, often toxic chemicals that are injected into the ground at high pressure to help extract natural gas. The fluid bubbles back up to the surface as brine, or “produced water,” containing hydrocarbons, heavy metals and salt concentrations up to seven times higher than sea water. It can sometimes contain radium 226 or 228, radioactive isotopes.
According to data oil and gas companies reported to the DEP, about half of the produced water generated in Pennsylvania was reused for more fracking in or out of state, spread on roads or reused in another unspecified manner. Once freshwater water is used to frack, it cannot be safely returned to its original watershed without treatment and may still contain chemicals and naturally occurring compounds that are toxic. It is lost to the water cycle. Pennsylvania has hundreds of thousands of fracking wells, and, in 2022, each consumed a little over 19 million gallons of freshwater on average, a ferocious pace for small streams, tributaries and creeks to keep up with.
Big Sewickley Creek, a watershed in southwestern Pennsylvania that is considered the boundary between Beaver and Allegheny Counties and flows into the Ohio river, may soon join the ranks of small water bodies that feed fracking operations.
PennEnergy, an oil and gas company, has applied for a Water Management Plan with the DEP, which is required by state law for the company to withdraw freshwater for fracking. They have proposed withdrawing 1.5 million gallons of water from Big Sewickley Creek, a fourth order stream.
That water would then be transported to a nearby fracking well. Local advocates, biologists and data analysts in Pennsylvania believe withdrawing such a volume of water would cripple the creek’s delicate ecosystem, harm valuable recreational and conservation lands and potentially lead to the extinction of one critically imperiled species of fish, the Southern Redbelly Dace.
The DEP has issued numerous administrative deficiency notices on PennEnergy’s various applications, citing many of the concerns local environmentalists have raised, including the potential threat water withdrawal poses to the dace. But the agency has stopped short of denying the permit outright, and local advocacy groups say they have tried to meet with the DEP to express their opposition to the water withdrawal project, to no avail.
A spokesperson for PennEnergy told Inside Climate News that “PennEnergy Resources is committed to safe and responsible natural gas development utilizing industry best practices that meet or exceed regulatory requirements. Water withdrawal permits in Pennsylvania are highly regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Applicants must adhere to strict minimum water ‘Pass-By Flows’ that ensures that the withdrawal of water does not adversely impact the stream, the habitat of fish or other species, or impede or interfere with other uses of the water source. PennEnergy’s proposed water withdrawal will operate well within Pennsylvania DEP withdrawal limits and has been approved by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission,” the agency responsible for making sure that Penn Energy’s proposed water withdrawal levels do not endanger aquatic life in the stream.
Big Sewickley Creek “is a treasured local natural resource for many reasons,” said Julie DiCenzo, a Bell Acres resident and an advocate for the watershed. “Eight municipal parks, two sportsman associations, several conservation areas, and a 1,200-acre state game lands lie within the watershed.” Hikers, mountain bikers and fishers enjoy access to the watershed, too, she said.
She spoke as part of a webinar covering the environmental effects of new oil and gas infrastructure on Pennsylvania waterways, hosted by FracTracker and Halt the Harm, another environmental group that monitors oil and gas projects across the country.
DiCenzo, who has been working in environmental advocacy in her community since 2017, said that several local environmental organizations have been working together to monitor PennEnergy’s water management permit since it was first submitted.
“We would work together writing the letters, and then we would ask all the community groups to sign on,” she said.
Their biggest concern was the size of PennEnergy’s proposed withdrawals. The company has asked to withdraw 1.5 million gallons of water a day from the creek, which is only 30 square-miles in size, relatively small for a watershed. What would happen to the plants, animals and people who enjoyed the creek’s delicate balance if that equilibrium was disrupted? DiCenzo asked.
Recurring water withdrawals of such magnitude to create fracking fluid could have “temporary, permanent and or cumulative negative impacts on the unique habitat in the watershed and all the species it supports,” said Rose Reilly, a biologist and Economy Borough resident.
Reilly, the former lead of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District’s Water Quality Unit, said even one round of withdrawals could severely damage the watershed’s ecosystem. Over 140 bird species have been documented in watershed, including nine species of “conservation concern that really depend on clean streams and woodlands,” she said.
As for the Southern Redbelly Dace, which Reilly characterized as a “small, dazzling minnow,” multiple withdrawals “will impact the water table, and could lead to the extinction of the springs that sustain this species by improving water quality and keeping the watershed cool,” she said.
The DEP and Pennsylvania’s Fish and Boat Commission raised concerns about the impact of water withdrawals on the Southern Redbelly Dace, too, and asked PennEnergy to adjust the volume of water it was requesting to withdraw from the creek in order to preserve the species’ habitat—two issues that have been inextricably linked throughout PennEnergy’s permit application process. If the company overestimated the amount of water available in the stream, as an earlier version of their application appeared to do, it could withdraw too much water, severely damaging the Southern Redbelly Dace’s home.
Reilly is particularly skeptical of the data PennEnergy originally used to characterize the creek’s flow, the amount of water that flows through a stream. “They’re using about ten years worth of data that were collected by the USGS at a location on Big Sewickley Creek less than half a mile upstream of their proposed withdrawal location,” she said. “Those data were collected 40 to 50 years ago.”
This is a point the DEP made to PennEnergy, too. In a deficiency notice issued to PennEnergy, the agency wrote that data the company had used to estimate Big Sewickley Creek’s flow, which had been collected between 1967 and 1978, did “not represent the most protective passby flow rate for Big Sewickley Creek.”
PennEnergy is “assuming that the 40-to 50-year-old period is representative of current conditions,” said Reilly. “And we keep insisting that that’s certainly not the case. There are lots of changes in flow and precipitation and also temperatures associated with climate change in the entire region. And specific changes that are occurring that demonstrate that historical data are not necessarily representative of current conditions,” she said. “We need real data.”
Because of the presence of the dace and the amount of water PennEnergy requested to withdraw, the DEP and Fish and Boat commission instituted a pass by flow of 30 percent from October through March, and 50 percent from April through September. This means the company must allow 30 to 50 percent of the river’s flow to move past their intake point, depending on the season, in order to preserve the fish’s habitat.
Studies have shown that water withdrawals in Pennsylvania need to be closely monitored. In 2015, a group of researchers from Yale published a study in American Geophysical Union examining trends in uses of freshwater from creeks, streams and rivers throughout Pennsylvania for fracking.
“Our analysis shows that a considerable fraction of water is taken from first-, second-, and third-order streams of small watersheds,” they wrote. Regulatory agencies in the state, “seem to have taken these potential risks seriously,” they went on, but that did not mean the risks of withdrawal were negligent. It is crucial for the “instantaneous flow” of a water body to be measured, “yet the vast majority of withdrawal sites are neither gauged nor monitored in a way that yields accurate estimates of stream discharge.” They recommended that more rigorous standards for withdrawal be adopted, or small streams be removed from consideration altogether.
This January, a research team from Ohio Northern University published a study on flow alterations in bodies of water in the Ohio river basin, where Big Sewickley Creek is located, used for fracking water withdrawals, and came to similar conclusions as the Yale group. Small watersheds, they observed, “are often not monitored and therefore no historical record of flow is present,” they wrote. Though severe reductions were infrequent, “they could have lasting negative impacts on the stream biota.”
Diminishing water levels in Big Sewickley Creek could affect more than the animals and fish that rely on the creek and also have an adverse impact on water quality. Withdrawing millions of gallons of water a day could hurt the creek’s ability to handle pollution.
“Dilution is the solution to pollution,” said Reilly, citing an old adage in water quality management that emphasizes the importance of the relationship between the volume of water and contaminants in managing pollution.
She noted that a wastewater treatment plant is permitted to discharge treated wastewater into Big Sewickley Creek, and if PennEnergy were granted its water withdrawal permit, it would diminish the creek’s flow and, thus, its dilution of the wastewater. “If you decrease the flow, you’re increasing the concentrations of all those pollutants discharged,” into the creek, she said.
In response to PennEnergy’s permit applications, DiCenzo said several different environmental groups compiled information on the ecological importance of the water levels in Big Sewickley Creek Watershed and sent the materials to local politicians asking them to write to the DEP to deny the permits.
State Rep. Rob Matzie, a Democrat whose district includes a portion of Big Sewickley Creek in Beaver County, was the most responsive, writing two letters to the DEP, one in 2021 and another in 2022, urging them to deny PennEnergy its permits in light of the local objections.
“Alarmingly, in summer months portions of this waterway tend to dry up, so the prospect of so much water being withdrawn could escalate any drought causing devastating harm to the surrounding habitat,” he wrote in his first letter.
In both documents, Matzie emphasizes his support for “natural gas extraction, along with strong environmental protections and local input.” He said, in most cases, businesses, local governments and communities can find a way to site energy projects and have a healthy environment. “But not in this case, not from this waterway, and not with this application,” he wrote.
Matzie did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and could not be reached to answer whether he would support legislation preventing small watersheds in Pennsylvania from being used for fracking withdrawals.
The groups monitoring PennEnergy’s permit also asked to meet with the DEP directly, and for the agency to host a community forum, “so that we could have a public exchange of information,” before any decision was made, DiCenzo said.
“Despite our repeated requests, the DEP has never agreed to meet with us or have a community forum,” she said. As part of its standard permit evaluation process, the DEP did allow a public comment period for PennEnergy’s water management application.
The DEP’s refusal to interact after the public comment period doesn’t necessarily mean the agency is uninterested in local concerns.
“I do notice that when we write letters to the DEP, they ask PennEnergy some of the same questions we have.” said Reilly. But, she added, the agency has not tipped its hand one way or another to indicate how it feels about the permit.
If granted an audience with the DEP, both DiCenzo and Reilly said they would ask the agency to consider removing small streams from consideration for water-withdrawal permits. They said they would also ask why the agency cannot deny these permits outright based on Pennsylvania’s constitution, which states, “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” and later, that “the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
DiCenzo and Reilly pointed out during the webinar that state code declares that “it shall be the Environmental Policy of the Commonwealth to continue to identify and protect the rare, threatened, and endangered species of this Commonwealth and to intensify efforts to protect and maintain the habitats of these species.” Under the current status quo, “we don’t feel that our legislators or the DEP are adequately upholding Article 1 Section 27 of our PA constitution,” said DiCenzo.
Big Sewickley Creek is “just one tiny example of a much greater problem and a much bigger story in the whole state of Pennsylvania,” said DiCenzo.
Joining DiCenzo and Reilly on the Halt The Harm and FracTracker webinar was Kat Wilson, a native Pennsylvanian and then an environmental health fellow at FracTracker, who said during the webinar that she had studied the effects of drought and fracking water-withdrawals on the state’s watersheds using publicly available data.
In many cases, she said, small, sometimes protected watersheds, were being drawn on for oil and gas activities. Protected watersheds are “supposed to be our most pristine, pollution-free waterways across the state,” she said, but roughly 45 percent of oil and gas water wells are sited in protected watersheds, and just over 17 percent pull directly from “our high-quality and exceptional value waters.”
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Meanwhile, many of these high-value waters, she said, are facing another existential threat: drought. Wilson synthesized data on forecasted drought conditions in Pennsylvania watersheds, fracking water well withdrawal sites and water quality designations to determine which high-quality drinking water sources in Pennsylvania are at risk both from increasing drought conditions and increasing fracking activities.
“Half of the fracked watersheds in Pennsylvania are important watersheds expected to decline,” Wilson said, adding that 178, or roughly 85 percent of those watersheds, can be found in the Ohio River Basin, where Big Sewickley creek is located.
People downstream of the Ohio River, which serves as a source of drinking water for 5 million people, are “at risk of higher concentrations of harmful chemicals in their water, as well as increased water costs due to a reduction in quality of the surface water,” because of fracking activities, she said.
If PennEnergy’s permit is approved by the DEP, local monitoring of the project would not cease.
“We’re gonna make sure that they’re watched,” said Reilly, who mentioned the possibility of obtaining a grant to fund an independent stream gauge in the creek.
Until then, Reilly, DiCenzo and the organizations monitoring PennEnergy’s permit application must await a final decision from the DEP. Almost every morning, DiCenzo checks the agency’s website to make sure that no new update on PennEnergy’s permit has been released. There have been several exchanges between PennEnergy, the DEP and various other state agencies since the company’s original application in 2021. As of early September, the permit had not been granted.
“We’re still waiting,” DiCenzo said.