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September 26, 2016
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Watching water quality: ‘Monitoring for Natural Gas Development’ underway

DRBC staff conduct biomonitoring surveys at Barney Hollow near Downsville, Delaware County, NY.

For 50 years, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has focused its work on protecting the waters of the Delaware River Basin (DRB). In addition to a decade-long biomonitoring program and other efforts detailed earlier in this series, the DRBC has focused lately on implementing its newest program, “Monitoring for Natural Gas Development (MNGD).”

The program brings together various initiatives to address the DRBC’s concern that the existing water quality in the DRB’s Special Protection Waters (SPW) is maintained. As such, it is monitoring a suite of parameters to establish pre-drilling conditions against which changes can be measured if and when drilling for natural gas begins in the basin.

MNGD incorporates baseline data gathered by the National Park Service, United States Geological Survey, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, New York Department of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection Agency.
It also brings in additional targeted biological monitoring, consistent recording of conductivity and temperature utilizing in-stream devices known as HOBO Loggers and the reanalysis of archived water samples.

At the August meeting of the Upper Delaware Council (UDC), Dr. Thomas Fikslin, who manages the DRBC’s Monitoring, Modeling and Assessment Branch, described the program and its focus. Fikslin noted that 36% of the Delaware River Basin is underlain by the Marcellus Shale, with speculation that the largest natural gas yields are expected toward northern Delaware County, NY, Wayne County, PA and parts of Sullivan County, NY.

Fikslin told the UDC that the DRBC’s management framework for the SPWs above Trenton, NJ allows for no measurable change to water quality based on data collected prior to 1992. Five years ago, the DRBC began monitoring to evaluate current water quality against water quality targets established in 1992, and to develop data to apply the management framework to the Middle and Upper Delaware River.

The DRBC’s 10-year biomonitoring program has tracked the biological community in different parts of the watershed, assessing the health of macro-invertebrate populations, which are key indicators of healthy waterways. Organisms such as stoneflies, river mussels and mayflies respond to changes in water quality and can serve as benchmarks in the current SPW regulations.

The DRBC targeted 103 watersheds of similar sizes in Pennsylvania and New York State to gather existing baseline data for its biomonitoring. Thirty-five sites were sampled in PA in April 2011 and 68 were sampled in New York in July and August.

Fikslin noted that gas companies will be required to do biomonitoring at pad sites. Another new measure will involve ranking the constituents in flowback water from hydraulic fracturing, which differs substantially from wastewater treatment plant effluent or non-point runoff. Flowback water contains constituents generated from the formation itself, and aquatic life is very sensitive to these, according to Fikslin. The DRBC’s draft regulations would require sampling for those constituents after a well has been stimulated.

The DRBC is also conducting a re-analysis of 711 water samples, 284 of which were collected in 2009 and 2010 from the Upper Delaware River and archived at the Academy of Natural Sciences. The samples will be analyzed for selected parameters identified in flowback samples, such as barium, strontium, bromide and sulfate.

Another area of concern is conductivity, according to Fikslin, and the agency is making use of devices called HOBO Loggers that measure temperature and conductivity for months. Current conditions indicate very low conductivity, with few ions and metals present. The monitors would potentially document pollution events that could be traced to natural gas development. DRBC regulations would require drillers to install the HOBO meters upstream and downstream of their well pad sites.

Docket holders for natural gas permits would also be required to do surface and groundwater monitoring at intervals including pre-site alteration, following each hydraulic fracturing and annually during production periods.

Representative groundwater wells would be required within
2,000 feet of well pads and at least one upstream and downstream surface water monitoring site would be installed to help identify the source of any chemicals found in the water.
Fikslin confirmed that long-standing policy under the Clean Water Act allows the companies to collect and analyze their own data, but added that the DRBC intends to also employ independent monitoring. He added that the proposed regulations call for the tracking of water used in the natural gas extraction process from its source to flowback to treatment.