THIS YEAR’S cool, rainy spring made drought seem far away, relegated to news reports of drought-wracked areas of the nation’s West and Midwest. But recent history in Pennsylvania has featured droughts, which makes planning for limited water resources all the more important given the natural gas boom here.
In some places in the West, which has experienced a persistent, severe drought in recent years, gas and oil drilling now competes with agriculture for a share of this finite resource.
An Associated Press analysis found that most counties in Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming where fracking is occurring are also experiencing drought as designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This new competition for water has pushed up prices, in some cases prohibitively high for farmers.
While drillers tout the prospect of an energy-independent nation, others worry such intensive water use could mean important aquifers never get recharged, both in farming regions and more populated areas.
To their credit, some drilling industry companies are developing water recycling systems that will enable them to frack with gray or brackish water, lowering their demand for potable water necessary for farming or other human use.
In some states regulators are setting limits on how much water energy companies can use during droughts.
Pennsylvania ought consider such rules. National Climatic Data Center records show that between 1895 and 1999, the Pocono region experienced 18 episodes of severe to extreme drought lasting at least two months.
The Upper Susquehanna region, where fracking activity is intensive, went through 22 drought episodes, several of them longer than here in the Poconos.
No one should assume water will always be abundant in Pennsylvania. Legislators and government officials have an obligation to develop reasonable guidelines now to make sure the quantities of water the energy industry uses don’t jeopardize the No. 1 driver of the state’s economy — agriculture — or deplete precious drinking water supplies. During the next drought, the citizens of Pennsylvania will be glad they did.