Delaware River Basin Comm. weighs in on gas drilling issue

By Matthew J. Perry
In one sense, the anticipated natural gas rush is yet another discussion of water rights. Hyrdrofracking, a recent technological advance that has helped to make the Marcellus and other shale formations into viable targets of exploration, requires millions of gallons of potable water.
The potential of a major gas play in Delaware and Sullivan counties has created concern in a region that already supplies most of New York City’s water. But while attention has focused on the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which will oversee the actual process of gas drilling, control of the region’s water rests in other hands.
The Delaware and Susquehanna river basins are each under the control of interstate commissions that determine how water is allocated. The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) exercises oversight over much of the Catskills’ water, with the exception of the city’s reservoirs. Gas drilling companies will need DRBC approval to draw on local sources for their drilling needs.
DRBC was formed in 1961 as a means to prevent interstate lawsuits and settle disputes over water rights that had been fought for decades. New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware all seat one member on the commission, along with a federal government partner appointed by the executive branch. New York City is not part of the commission; under a 1954 Supreme Court ruling, the city continues to regulate the flow of its three reservoirs in the basin.
The arrangement brings a tremendous new responsibility to the DRBC, and so far the commission is dealing with it quietly. Like the DEC, this organization is not sounding any warnings about gas drilling; presently, the commission pledges only “to ensure that proper environmental controls are provided to safeguard our basin’s water resources.”
That process will require an accounting of where water will be drawn from, as well as where wastewater will go. Gas companies will be required to submit an application to DRBC before beginning construction of any wells.
DRBC communications manager Clarke Rupert states that “to the best of my knowledge we’ve haven’t received any applications” for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. He also conceded that like other regulatory agencies and most private citizens, the commission is getting up to speed on drilling issues.
“There will be a learning process here. Up until now we’ve had no involvement with [the gas drilling industry], and the states have never turned to DRBC for guidance,” he said in an interview.
DRBC will accept applications at any time. After staff review, recommendations for approval or disapproval will be given to the appointed commissioners, a docket will be drafted and a public hearing will be scheduled in tandem with regular meetings of the commission, which occur five times a year.
Rupert stated that extensive drilling could create strains on water supplies. “A lot of areas we’ve identified as major sources of concern. Also, we’re going to need to see plans for disposal of recovered frack water.” Presently, the commission is drafting addenda to its application to cover all aspects of the drilling process. Rupert did not say if DRBC would create a boilerplate of regulations or would examine applications on a case by case basis.
DRBC is working in tandem with state agencies to fulfill its mandate, but the commission does not want to “duplicate” regulations put in place by the state bodies. In essence, the point is not to bog down gas companies in drawn-out review process. Entities that wish to sell natural resource rights—water, in this case—will not need to apply for DRBC approval unless they supply more than 100,000 gallons for 30 consecutive days. This exception should put municipalities with water to sell on notice.
Gas drilling opponents, however, should note that the DRBC website states that approval of sales above this threshold “may” be required. Like the DEC, the commission is not out to obstruct the industry.