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Water use for 'fracking' raises environmentalists' ire

Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, June 12, 2012 09:06


AKRON, Ohio - Lea Harper of Senecaville is on the warpath.

The southeast Ohio resident is upset that the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, which collects surface water from Akron's south side all the way to Marietta on the Ohio River, is selling water from one of its reservoirs to Gulfport Energy Corp. for natural gas drilling.

That water from Clendening Reservoir in Harrison County could be just the beginning of a huge drain on Ohio's water resources, she said. Hundreds of billions of gallons are at stake, not only because of its immediate effect on lakes and rivers, but also perhaps a permanent effect on water supplies.

Chesapeake Energy Corp., for example, the most active driller in the state, is interested in the watershed's Leesville Reservoir, about 20 miles south of Canton, Ohio.

Paul Feezel of Carroll Concerned Citizens, a grass-roots group in Carroll County where drilling is heaviest, estimates that the water needed to supply Ohio's annual drilling needs could drain two-thirds of Leesville Reservoir annually.

In all, the conservancy district has requests for water from a dozen drilling companies that are eager to tap six reservoirs in eastern Ohio.

But the conservancy is not the only source: Drillers are buying water from communities, private pond owners, water districts and private water companies, as well as pulling free water from Ohio streams.

"I'm just flabbergasted and appalled that Ohioans are willing to see their water future disappear," said Harper, who heads the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water, a grass-roots group.

Ohio has plenty of water and can furnish the water needed for drilling to help boost Ohio's economy, state officials say. The water needed by drillers is just a drop in the bucket.

Ohio typically uses 8.7 billion gallons per day from surface and underground supplies, according to state data. Electric power plants are the biggest users, taking 6.5 billion gallons daily, according to 2010 data.

In comparison, it will take an entire year for natural gas drilling to consume about 5.2 billion gallons in Ohio.

Water, sand and chemicals are mixed and forced into wells under high pressure to fracture the earth, releasing natural gas. Water also is used to prepare cement that lines the wells, mix chemicals and control dust on roads.

Each natural gas well in Ohio needs 2 million to 6 million gallons of fresh water, the state says. The initial Ohio wells generally took 5 million to 6 million gallons.

That's about as much as 50 four-person households would consume over the course of a year. On the other hand, in one day the city of Akron typically uses 34.66 million gallons from its reservoirs _ enough to frack six wells.

If Ohio's quest for natural gas plays out over the next 20 to 40 years, it is estimated that 120 billion to 200 billion gallons of water could be needed _ more than Akron is likely to deliver to its customers in 95 years.

In water-poor western states like Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, that has become a problem. Even in central Pennsylvania, which typically is not considered a dry area, drilling has been curtailed because drought has reduced water levels in the Susquehanna River and its tributaries.

Harper said she is troubled by the heavy use of a limited freshwater resource, the threat of contamination, the threat to recreation on the lakes, and whether it is right that a public agency be making a profit off water sales.

The district, she says, was created to prevent flooding and to conserve water, not to profit from water sales to drillers.

"It's one of our greatest resources, and we're giving it away," she said. "We're supporting a risky and exploitative industry. We need to fight this. It's not sustainable. This is a big issue that's getting bigger. ... It's a problem that not enough people are paying attention to. We have to take a stand."

No one is monitoring such withdrawals or tracking the cumulative impacts of providing billions of gallons of water to drillers, she said.

The 18-county conservancy district _ it covers 20 percent of Ohio _ has defended its actions and says it is doing nothing wrong in selling water to drillers and boosting economic development, said spokesman Darrin Lautenschleger.

Ohio has plenty of water to handle drillers' requests now and in the future, said Ted Lozier of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Soil and Water Resources.

The amount being requested by drillers may sound like a large volume of water, he said.

"But, relatively speaking, it's not much at all," he said.

He added: "Ohio has definitely been blessed with rich water resources ... and we don't see this being a problem. We have more than enough supply to handle drilling."

He acknowledged that if there were a sustained drought, there could be a need for alternate sources. Drillers cannot take water from Lake Erie or streams that feed into Lake Erie under Great Lakes rules.

Like Ohio officials, Chesapeake considers water availability in Ohio to be a non-issue, but the company works with federal, state and local agencies to assure there are no negative impacts from its water withdrawals, said company spokesman Pete Kenworthy.

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