Only 30 Percent of Streamflow Safe From Gas Drillers

Natural gas drillers with permits to draw water from trout streams would be entitled to continue taking water even in low-water conditions — stopping only when the stream gets down to 30 percent of its average daily or monthly flow, whichever is greater, under new rules proposed by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Described as a “Natural Flow Regime Method,” the proposed regulation is part of an 800-page draft generic environmental impact statement released last week by the DEC in anticipation of thousands of applications for natural gas wells in the southern half of the state.

The hydro-fracturing method of natural gas drilling uses millions of gallons of water for each well. The prospect that trout streams will be seen as cheap and convenient sources has alarmed environmentalists and fishing advocates. One company has already asked permission to withdraw water from the West Branch of the Delaware River, one of the region’s premier trout streams.

The DEC says a separate permit will be required for each water withdrawal, and drillers will be required to submit a “stringent and protective streamflow analysis.”

The Natural Flow Regime Method requires a “passby flow” of 30 percent of the average daily flow or average monthly flow, whichever is greater. On a small stream with an average flow of 50 cubic feet per second, a driller would be entitled to continue withdrawing water until the stream has been reduced to just 15 cubic feet per second, by natural conditions like lack of rainfall and by the withdrawal itself.

Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said the 30 percent passby flow is based on well-established formulas that have worked in other states.

“We believe that that will ensure that aquatic communities in the stream are protected,” Wren told me in an interview this week.

The leading coldwater conser­vation group is not so sure.

“Trout Unlimited is still in the process of analyzing the water withdrawal component, as well as all of the other aspects of the draft SGEIS. However, at first glance, the proposed Natural Flow Regime Method appears to be an antiquated method by which to set water withdrawal levels — particularly when other states in the region are moving toward a watershed approach to deal with water withdrawals,” said Elizabeth Maclin, TU vice president for Eastern Conservation.

The Marcellus Shale formation, which could contain as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, lies beneath West Virginia, Pennsylvania

and the southern half of New York, from Chautauqua County to the Hud­son River and as far north as I-90.

Other parts of New York could see hydro-fracturing in the future.

“Sedimentary rock formations which may someday be developed by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing exist from the Vermont/Massachusetts border up to the St. Lawrence/Lake Champlain region, west along Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions,” according to the DEC. “Drilling will not occur on state-owned lands in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves because of the state constitution’s requirement that Forest Preserve lands be kept forever wild and not be leased or sold. In addition, the subsurface geology of the Adirondacks, New York City and Long Island renders drilling for hydrocarbons in those areas unlikely.”

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