Who Should Manage Western Pennsylvania's Water?

Droughts and floods are happening more frequently on this side of the Mississippi. And eastern states are thinking about how much fresh water should be pulled from their waterways and who should decide how much water is withdrawn. As part of our water management series, The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray takes a look at a region of Pennsylvania thatís struggling with these questions.

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OPEN: †Droughts and floods are happening more frequently on this side of the Mississippi. And eastern states are thinking about how much fresh water should be pulled from their waterways and who should decide how much water is withdrawn. †As part of our water management series, The Allegheny Front's Ann Murray takes a look at a region of Pennsylvania thatís struggling with these questions.

MURRAY: Let's start with a hypothetical: †you want to withdraw water from one of Pennsylvania's rivers or streams. Make it 100,000 gallons. Can you just suck up the water and take it with you? Well, it depends where the water is located and who you are. If youíre in eastern or central Pennsylvania no matter who you are: a public water utility, a big power plant, a farmer or mining company, you're going to have to get a permit from the river basin commission there. The Delaware in the east or Susquehanna in the middle of the state. †Ron Schwartz says if you're in the Ohio River basin in western Pennsylvania, it's a whole different story.

SCHWARTZ: As things stand today, there's no permit required for water withdrawals in western Pennsylvania other than for potable water supplies.

MURRAY: Schwartz is assistant director of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection southwest office. He says his agency has also targeted water use by Marcellus shale companies for drilling and fracturing gas wells.

SCHWARTZ: If the water is to be used for that purpose they do, in fact, send in a water plan into us on†where they're going to withdraw from and we review that.

MURRAY: For a lot of groups, regulating the water use of just public water suppliers and deep shale drillers†isn't protective enough of the basin. Particularly in a basin where floods have brought higher bacterial counts and low flows increases in total dissolved solids and other pollutants. Some believe western Pennsylvania and states along the Ohio need their own river basin commission.

MOORS: Here's the advantage of having a commission. The commission gets a very clear feel of how much water is actually necessary within a given basin.

MURRAY: Kent Moors is the director of Duquesne University's Institute for Energy and Environment. He studies the impacts of Marcellus gas development, a water-intensive industry. Moors says the Susquehanna River Basin Commission can balance water use because it has the big picture.

MOORS: For example in Susquehanna, when a company comes to request a certain amount of water, the basin commission can say, no, X is too much. You're only going to get Y. And they've got a database on which to predicate that. We have got nothing like that here in western Pennsylvania.

MURRAY: †With this lack of a basin-wide picture of water use and limited permitting, why hasn't an Ohio River commission evolved? In a word: consensus. The creation of a regional†agency would involve agreement among the 14 states along the Ohio and an act of Congress. So far, there's been a lot of talk and very little movement. Sam Dinkins, the project coordinator with ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, sees another route that might have more traction: an expansion of ORSANCO's regulatory role.

DINKINS: It would require new authorities granted to us because, it's not part of our compact authority as it stands right now. And so thatís no small endeavor there to change a compact. Our compact has never been opened up for modification since it since it was originally adopted in 1948.

MURRAY: The seeds for ORSANCO were sown in the 1930s when cities along the Ohio River suffered from water borne typhoid and gastro-intestional epidemics. Eight states formed a compact to allow a commission to adopt pollution control standards for the main stem of the Ohio.

DINKINS: At that time, the issues at hand were water quality, the abatement of water pollution problems. Water quantity issues were not as prominent of an issue at that time.

MURRAY: Dinkins says water quantity and quality are now recognized as inextricably linked. ORSANCO recently created a Water Resources Committee. It was originally formed so states could talk about water quantity issues but the commission is considering moving past talking to actually regulating water withdrawals. The member states will have to make that decision. DEP's Ron Schwartz who is Pennsylvania's representative to ORSANCO says the Commonwealth is on board.

SCHWARTZ: †There must be some entity in place similar †to look at it †more holistically and †you know put some controls in place that ensure that everyone's needs will be met.

MURRAY: Schwartz sees expanding ORSANCO's authority as faster than creating a new basin commission from scratch. He's encouraged by the states agreement to create the Water Resources Committee. He says that water quantity issues are important all along the Ohio and points to the lower basin's current problems with flooding. But not everyone thinks that a new or existing interstate commission is the answer for western Pennsylvania.

ARNOWITT: I think it's a great idea in theory but in practice what I fear is that we would be combining Pennsylvania with many states down stream on †the Ohio that have pretty poor environmental records that are dominated by the coal industry.

MURRAY: That's Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director of the environmental group Clean Water Action. He says the solution is

ARNOWITT: a real state regulatory system for water withdrawal. I'm not saying itís going to be easy to get it through the state legislature. It may take you know quite some time.

MURRAY: Over the years, the Pennsylvania legislature has tried and failed to pass water withdrawal laws. For instance, in the early 1990s, after a string of droughts. In 2002, the state attempted to implement a water withdrawal regulation as part of its new water management plan. After a barrage of complaints from homeowners and farmers, the act passed as an online water registration policy. So, getting an entity to regulate water use in western Pennsylvania isn't going to be easy.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Ann Murray.