Saturday, January 2, 2010

Can Towns Protect their Aquifers from Gas Drilling Impacts?

I live in a small town in upstate NY, a town whose water supply is dependent upon groundwater. Groundwater, as it turns out, that is intimately connected with the rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and ephemeral wetlands that abound in the forests and hills surrounding us. A couple weeks ago Steve Winkley, a source water protection specialist from the New York Rural Water Association, met with village, town and county officials to discuss sole source aquifers and how we might protect our water supply.

Winkley listed a number of reasons communities create source water protection plans: to eliminate or reduce potential contamination threats; to ensure long-term sustainability of the system; to minimize impacts from external sources; and to plan for contingencies in event of an emergency. While the village is interested in maintaining the long-term viability of their municipal wells, the town is interested in minimizing potential impacts from imminent industrial gas drilling.

A watershed protection plan would focus on the Catatonk Creek aquifer and the watershed that feeds into the system - but first the town and village need more information about the source water. Being a rural area, the "public water system" includes two village wells, the two or three cafe's in town, a recreational camp and a couple mobile home parks.

A "public water system" is defined as one that provides water to at least 25 people, and receives certain protections in the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) proposed rules for drilling Marcellus and other shales. But most people in town get their water from individual drinking water wells - and according to Winkley there are at least 2600 sprinkled throughout the hills and valleys of the town. He estimates that 71 percent of the people - or more -  get their water from the Catatonk Creek aquifer.

But the aquifer is not simply a single layer of water flowing beneath the ground. While some drinking wells tap into a shallow layer that runs as deep as 30 feet, others tap into the deeper layer that is 50 to 130 feet down. It is the shallow wells that are more at risk from contamination.

Right now the risk of contamination comes from close proximity to septic systems and surface spills. But Winkley is concerned about potential impacts of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the aquifer. Proposed wells located within 1,000 feet of a municipal water supply would normally trigger an individual environmental impact statement (EIS). However, he noted, that doesn’t include community systems such as the local mobile home parks.

Winkley listed measures for the community to consider with respect to protecting source water: land-use regulations (zoning), wellhead protection laws, easements, and water monitoring and testing. He emphasized that when towns contemplate industrial activity, such as drilling, they need to remember that all water sources are connected. Streams flowing from the hills recharge the aquifer, and the recharge areas are important places to protect.

Meanwhile, two towns in Colorado - the town of Palisade and the city of Grand Junction - collaborated with a gas company to develop a watershed protection plan. They were concerned about risks to surface water from construction (roads, well pads, and pipelines), storm water runoff, and spills of drilling fluids, fracking chemicals or brine. Potential groundwater risks included percolation of contaminants from surface spills, leaky casings, and other below-ground accidents.

You can read their watershed protection plan here, but the key provisions include:
  • Baseline studies- to define and map streams, lakes, springs, ponds and other sensitive source water-related areas.
  • Clustered Development Well Pad Spacing – by clustering development there will be fewer roads, pipelines and other impacts on the environment as well as reduced traffic. 
  • Emergency Response Plan – the gas company will prepare an emergency response plan and provide training for local emergency squad
  • Use of Closed Loop drilling systems instead of reserve pits
  • A commitment to using “green” hydraulic fracturing procedures, processes and materials. This means that fracking chemicals used in the watershed area will be “biodegradable, non-toxic, neutral pH, residual free, non-corrosive, non-polluting, and non-hazardous in the forms and concentrations being used.” No known carcinogens will be used.


  1. This is an outstanding article which succinctly highlights many of the risks associated with natural gas drilling when its commercial viability depends upon the unproven technology of hydraulic fracturing in fragile geologies.

    The risks to watersheds are real, comprehensive and extremely challenging to correct - assuming a rupture can event BE corrected thousands of feet below the surface.

    I've lived with the devastating and ongoing impacts of this industry for seven years, many of which remain uninvestigated by regulatory authorities.

    Perhaps the best hope residents have when standing before imminent destruction is to carefully catalogue existing aquatic and terrestrial conditions while working to construct an agreement with industry to provide for accountability where laws do not exist to help ensure the protection of people and the environment.

    If one cannot protect their vital interests in advance, then, in the least, provisions should be provided for risk assessment, quantifiable damages (through, in part, a program of on-going monitoring), corrective measures and restitution.

    This industry poses the preeminent public health risk of the new millennium. As with any such threat, early education and prevention are key to minimizing foreseeable effects.

    L. Bracken

  2. So how do you find out how deep your watershed water is located in PA? Can you give some guidelines? no one knows anything about this unless you study it and who has time to do it without jobs and in search of jobs found only where everlasting gas drillers now use toxic don't want to work for a gas industry job, we are honest people worried about our watershed and know nothing and how deep water is located

  3. so are you saying if the gas drillers only use green chemicals we could be sure our water is not contaminated by any drilling fluids

  4. How many feet underground is the aquifer? I assume it's so deep. If the NY government decides to check every area's aquifer, how long is this going to take? I personally do not care if it would take years for as long as our community can be ensured of clean water flowing into our homes.