|Filling up from the Susquehanna in Sheshequin Township, Bradford County PA|
Yesterday, September 16 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a drought warning for 24 counties and a drought watch for the remaining 43 counties. The reason is a continuation of what DEP officials refer to as a "precipitation deficit". It hasn't rained for a long, long time. And when it has, the amount of rainfall has been lower than average.
"The hot, dry conditions over the summer months have led to steadily-declining ground and surface water levels, particularly in the southwest and east-central portions of the state," DEP Secretary John Hanger said in a press release. So DEP has issued the drought watches and warnings across the state to alert water suppliers, industry and the public of the need to "begin conserving water."
What does that mean for the residents? For Stephanie Hallowich it means figuring out how to reduce her family's consumption by 10 to 15 percent. "We are advised not to flush our toilets as frequently, shorten our showers and conserve water," she says. Hickory, which is about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, is in one of the dryer counties.
It's also home to gas drilling, and Hallowich sees the water trucks lining up daily to dump water in the impoundments (large ponds) for use in drilling and hydraulic fracturing. "There are public water lines connecting to huge hoses that carry water to impoundments throughout the area," Hallowich says. "Our creek beds are dry where they've been withdrawing water all summer."
The 24 counties under drought warning are: Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Fayette, Franklin, Fulton, Greene, Huntingdon, Lackawanna, Lawrence, Lehigh, Luzerne, Mercer, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Schuylkill, Somerset, and Washington. According to DEP, precipitation is over 5 inches below normal in these counties, and the situation extends south into West Virginia as well. Households, businesses and industries have been asked to voluntarily reduce their water consumption 10 - 15 percent.
The remaining 43 counties are under a "drought watch" which is the first level - and least severe - of the state's three drought classifications. It calls for a voluntary 5 percent reduction in non-essential water use, and puts large water consumers on notice to begin planning for the possibility of reduced water supplies.
DEP is sending letters to all water suppliers statewide, notifying them of the need to monitor their supplies and update their drought contingency plans as necessary. But they aren't turning off the faucet for companies drilling in Marcellus shale. At least not yet.
"When DEP gives those companies permission for water withdrawal, it's based on the stream flow in the works case scenario," explained DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun. "So far the DEP has not needed to ask those companies to stop withdrawing water." That's because, Rathbun says, the gas drillers take less than one percent of the water consumed each day. "Public water utilities are the biggest user, followed by agriculture, power generation, recreation .... natural gas comes in seventh on the list."
Rathbun stressed that at this point reducing water consumption is voluntary. Yes, water levels are low. "But we're a long way from a water emergency," he said. Small comfort to homeowners like Hallowich who have watch the water levels in their local streams decline as water tankers fill up before heading to the drill sites.