Robin Wildermuth, Association of Consulting Foresters and Private Forestry Consultant
New York City and Philadelphia concerns about what fracking might mean for their water supplies simply don’t hold water and reflect a more basic desire – they want the land, all of it, for their own enjoyment.
The blogs and newspapers are ablaze with residents of metropolitan areas claiming the need to “protect” their drinking water from the possibility of fracking in the Delaware River Basin. New York City and Philadelphia “stakeholders” have become quite vocal in resource issues concerning the private property of Northeastern Pennsylvania landowners. These “stakeholders” should pause and ask themselves a few questions: Is there any scientific data to support your concerns? Should preventing fracking be your main concern when it comes to protecting your drinking water? (Do you ever worry about our drinking water when you send us your trash?)
As the Delaware River Basin Commission continually cites the New York City drinking water supply to defend its moratorium and “protect” the water supply for “15 million people”, it is of particular interest to learn why the Commission was created in the first place. The DRBC history actually begins with the effort by New York City to enter the watershed, construct reservoirs and divert water away from downstream consumers, resulting in contentious conflict among the states that share the watershed. In 1930, New Jersey looked to the U.S. Supreme Court to prevent both the city and state of New York from accessing the waters of the Delaware River.
The next year, the Court granted New York City the right to withdraw 440 million gallons per day (mgpd) from the basin. In 1952, New York City decided that this was not enough, and filed a petition with the Court to increase its withdrawal limit. The concerned parties (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, New York City, and Pennsylvania) returned to Court, where eventually the City’s withdrawal limit was increased to 800 mgpd. (At certain times, the City’s permitted diversion amounts to as much as 39% of the total flow of the Upper Delaware as measured at Matamoras!) Additionally, a flow object was put in place requiring New York City to release enough water in order to ensure adequate water volume downriver.
New York City’s decree allotment became a problem during the severe droughts of the early 1960s when the city continued to withdraw water as the lower sections of the Delaware experienced extremely low levels. As a result, salt water from the Delaware Bay backed up the river to drinking water intake pipes, causing the neighboring states to demand changes to the river management procedures. (This would never happen as a result of natural gas extraction since gas company withdrawals are being managed throughout the rest of Pennsylvania through strict flow-by requirements that are successfully protecting our streams and rivers.) This episode of New York City’s irresponsible and unsustainable diversion of water led to the formation of the Delaware River Basin Commission, with its mandate to model and manage flows and assist in protecting water quality.
Today, New York City and New Jersey are diverting an average of 600 mgpd of water out of the upper reaches of the basin. Of the New York City diversion amount, the Delaware Riverkeeper organization (which has repeatedly expressed concerns over the amount of water required for fracking) estimates that 35 mgpd leaks out of the tunnels en route. It has been estimated that the natural gas industry in the Delaware River Basin area would require only approximately 3 mgpd, a mere 1/12th of the amount of water New York City wastes every day due to faulty infrastructure. More importantly, none of New York City’s water supply actually comes from Pennsylvania. Their Catskill reservoirs are located entirely in the state of New York, which has pledged to protect them. Unless water begins to defy gravity and flow upstream, they are not stakeholders here.
The overuse of the Delaware River Basin water by New York City has raised concerns on many fronts. In a June 2009 meeting (Page 17) of the DRBC Regulated Flow Advisory Committee, Tom Murphy (of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection) stated “New York City is not opposed to releasing water that is not needed right now, if that same amount of water will be available for NYC to use when needed in the future. However, NYC does not want to establish a program that will create additional habitats and benefits now but that will have to be reduced in the future when NYC needs the water.”
Apparently, New York City is willing to sacrifice present economic or ecological benefits along the Delaware in order to protect their potential future needs. By defending their excessive use of the Delaware River water resources, they are denying the citizens of Northeastern Pennsylvania the right to responsibly develop our local economy. There is great irony in the fact the Delaware River Basin Commission, an organization originally created to protect the watershed from the greediness and over-consumption of New York City, is now seemingly supporting their unsupported concerns at the expense of the livelihood and future of the residents of the basin.
Philadelphia residents also seem to be concerned about their drinking water supply, and have decided to lay their blame on the natural gas industry. Regardless of the fact scientific study after scientific study has shown hydraulic fracturing for natural gas does not pollute drinking water, and little more than half of their water comes from the main stem Delaware River Basin (44% of their water comes from the Schuylkill River) residents of Philadelphia continue to protest the natural gas industry as the threat to their potable water.
Like New York City, Philadelphia must miss the irony in placing concern on the natural gas industry while ignoring the fact that after leaving our region, their future drinking water flows past a range of contamination source, including a coal-fired power plant and sewage treatment plants. As the water nears Philadelphia, it goes by golf courses and developments, both major sources of soil erosion and high rates of sedimentation, as well as major industrial development
Let’s apply a well-known metaphor to Philadelphia’s water troubles: If you want to carry more (or better) water in a bucket full of holes, you fix the lowest hole in the bucket first. (Any northeastern Pennsylvania farmer knows that). Philadelphia seems to be directing all of its attention towards the top (alleged) hole, natural gas, even though that won’t help them carry any more water. They need to fix the lowest hole in the bucket, the pollution that happens after the Delaware River water has flowed past our backyards. Philadelphia should start addressing all the effluents in their own neighborhoods that are polluting the water or acknowledge that their state of the art water treatment is actually capable of addressing the existence of people on the land.
Their fixation on the highest hole in the bucket has more to do with picking an option that involves zero cost on their part, instead punishing some far off landowners for no benefit whatsoever. Landowners in the Upper Delaware River Basin are confused, and rightfully so. Today, in the Delaware River Basin, permits accommodate all land uses including landfills (Pen Argyl), coal breakers (South Tamaqua), coal fired power plants (Portland), inadequately designed sewage treatment facilities (take your pick), stone quarries, cement plants, commercial and industrial development throughout the lower Delaware Basin, essentially any land use you want except a natural gas well.
This leads us to ask one final question: Is this really about the water? Perhaps this is really about turning the Upper Delaware into a park and driving working landowners off of the landscape. We are well aware of the land use implications for our natural resources and have successfully protected our watersheds for generations. Their argument that they need to “protect” their water from us frankly doesn’t hold water.