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.
Environmentalists are not convinced there is no problem, especially in light of the fact that Ohio could be looking at tens of thousands of wells in the coming years. And those wells will be fracked multiple times over the years.
When fresh water goes down into the well, it comes out polluted with dissolved solids, toxic chemicals used in the fracking process, heavy metals and even low levels of radiation from the rock.
A few companies like Chesapeake Energy are starting to recycle that wastewater and reuse it in future drilling. A Canadian company wants to drill with propane, not water. Both ideas would require less fresh water.
But at the moment, most of the wastewater is injected below ground in Ohio’s 176 injection wells for permanent disposal.
That means that the water is lost from the fresh water cycle, said critic Sara Rollet Gosman, a water resources attorney with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Unlike water used by agriculture and industry, water used in fracking disappears from the hydrological cycle and cannot be used again, she said.
That’s where the numbers take on new meaning.
If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is correct - that somewhere between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water were used in 2011 alone in fracking an estimated 35,000 wells across the country - much of that water may be forever removed from life cycle of the earth’s surface.
“It’s different than other traditional water withdrawals,” she said. “It is a 100 percent consumptive use. The water is basically pretty much lost and gone forever.”
One environmental group, Food & Water Watch, has called for a ban on fracking because of the growing threat to drinking-water supplies.
Fracking poses “serious, long-term risks to vital water resources,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a group based in Washington, D.C., in a statement in March.
Another group, American Rivers, has expressed concern about fracking and its impact on streams.
At present, drillers are finding multiple sources, from free water in Ohio streams to buying from community water systems.
Chesapeake Energy tries to get its water as close as possible to the well to minimize transport costs.
“We look to all potential water sources whether it be from landowners, businesses or municipalities,” said Chesapeake’s Kenworthy.
Companies are contracting with a number of Ohio municipalities. In February, Chesapeake signed a five-year contract with Steubenville, Ohio, to buy as much as 700,000 gallons a day from a reservoir that is filled with water pumped from the Ohio River.
The Oklahoma-based firm and the No. 1 player in Ohio’s Utica shale pays $5 per 1,000 gallons of raw river, treated wastewater or treated drinking water. That means that Steubenville earns up to $120,000 a month in Chesapeake water sales.
Such sales now make it impossible to track how much water drillers are using in Ohio because the water shows up in state data as municipal water usage, not for drilling, said environmental advocate Teresa Mills of Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Columbus, Ohio.
“I don’t see how we will ever get the true picture of how much water is being destroyed by this industry,” she said.
Under Senate Bill 315, Ohio’s newly passed law on drilling, drillers will have to disclose their water source and how much water they use for the first time, the state says.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources now typically meets with drillers before drilling begins and discusses planned water usage, said spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans.
But plans are often sketchy, and under current rules, drillers do not have to tell the state what the water source or volume is, she said.
Drillers also are getting well water from landowners with whom they have leases, although the counties in eastern Ohio where the drilling into the Utica shale is under way are poor for ground water yields. The drillers now want to tap into larger, dependable lakes and reservoirs in eastern Ohio.
Clendening Reservoir holds an estimated 8.6 billion gallons. The watershed district agreed to sell up to 11 million gallons or 0.12 percent of the reservoir’s capacity to Gulfport Energy. Gulfport agreed to pay $9 per 1,000 gallons.
The village of Cadiz, Ohio, gets its drinking water from the district via Tappan Lake in Harrison County. It pays 10 cents per 1,000 gallons. It has then been selling its water at a much higher price to Chesapeake Energy. The village wants to buy more water from Tappan to sell to drillers.
The watershed district has asked the U.S. Geological Survey to determine how much “excess” water it might have available to sell to drillers from three of its reservoirs.
A preliminary federal study indicated that the district has available water in April but that level declines through the summer as recreational needs must be met in the reservoirs.
Harper, meanwhile, has no intention of giving up.
“Water is a valuable resource that we cannot afford to lose,” she said. “What’s happening just isn’t right. It may be legal but we don’t think it’s moral to exploit our natural resources. And I’m not going away.”
AKRON, Ohio —
Lea Harper of Senecaville is on the warpath.
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