Delaware River Master Parts the Water
A stalemate continues when it comes to gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin. The four states that share the basin can’t agree on how to regulate the industry. This is just one in a long line of interstate conflicts over a river that begins as a trickle in the Catskills, flows through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and meets up with the ocean in the Delaware Estuary. As it runs its 330 mile course, communities along its path rely on it for fresh water.
And it takes a lot of water to quench the thirst of 15 million people.
Standing on the banks of the Delaware River in Milford, Pennsylvania, looking across to Montague, New Jersey, geologist Gary Paulachok talks about his job as the Delaware River Master for the past 12 years.
“Now, right now in the river we have stage of elevation of about 6.3 feet,” says Paulachok. “[That] corresponds to a flow of about ,oh, about 3,500 cubic feet per second.”
Paulachok’s official title is Deputy Delaware River Master. He works for the U.S. Geological Survey, which also employs a Delaware River Master stationed in Reston, Virginia. But Paulachok is the guy who makes sure all that thirst doesn’t make the river run dry. Or more precisely, he makes sure the salt water line doesn’t creep up to Philadelphia’s intake pipes in the Northeast section of the city.
“And that is a very significant reason why this flow is maintained at 1750 [cubic feet per second], says Paulachok. To keep the salt front down far enough down in the [Delaware] Estuary, so it doesn’t effect the city of Philadelphia’s water supply or the water supplies in New Jersey.”
From his tightly packed room in an office park in Milford, he tracks the vagaries of weather, the water releases of a nearby nuclear power plant, and other unwelcome surprises.
A 40-foot tall cement tower that sits by the river in Milford, Pa. gauges river flow, and sends data out via satellite transmission. The tower was built in 1939, as a way to mediate that era’s water wars among New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At that time, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in to mitigate, and their edict still stands today.
“So this river is flowing at twice the rate that the Supreme Court Decree calls for,” says Paulachok. Record rains in the area have kept the river full.
“If it were to drop below 1750 cubic feet per second here,” he says, “that’s when we would call for releases of water to bring it back up to 1750.”
Those water releases would come from one of three New York reservoirs operated to serve residents of New York City.
Back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as New York City’s population grew, officials looked for a clean source of water. Although the city does not lie within the Delaware watershed, it decided the river provided good water that could run downhill to Manhattan.
So New York began building reservoirs and aqueducts still in use today. The system now provides 9 million New York state residents with unfiltered water. That’s a rarity for urban areas.
But when New York City started drawing water from the river 80 years ago, New Jersey and Pennsylvania objected. They worried the Big Apple would hog all the good water. New Jersey wanted city residents to drink from the Hudson River. But New Yorkers said the Hudson was too dirty.
The issue twisted its way through the courts and in 1931, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decree governing water withdrawals. In 1954, the court weighed in on a new chapter of the conflict. It set up the post of Rivermaster to oversee water flow, and make sure New York didn’t hoard all the good water.
Paulachok is quick to show all the typewritten tables and hand drawn sketches of river information presented to the Supreme Court. On the wall of his office, he’s posted the map used by the Court appointed Special Master.
Every year, Paulochok sends thick reports to the Supreme Court with the daily river flow figures. Standing by the river, he marvels over its health.
“As you can see, it’s a beautiful river,” says Paulachok. “We have excellent fishing here, we have excellent recreation, the river is very clean. We have a thriving bald eagle population here that’s dependent upon the river for its food source. And I would really just hate to see anything happen to the water quality for any reason, by any type of activity.”
Paulachok says one thing the Rivermaster hasn’t had to worry about was large water withdrawals for industry.
But when gas drilling begins in the Delaware River Basin, he says that could change. That’s because natural gas wells can use up to 4 million gallons of water a day.
“What would concern one from a water supply standpoint, is that water leaving the river basin,” says Paulachok. “The concern in a number of quarters is the cumulative effect. When we’re looking the possibility of maybe 10,000 wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale alone, what is the total cumulative effect of all those taking. We expect it would be significant.”
Water, combined with sand, and chemicals is used to extract the gas in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Much of that water comes back up the well and needs to be treated. But Paulachok says if the treatment takes place outside the basin, that water won’t ever be returned.
Paulachok says he also worries about the cumulative effect drilling may have on water quality. The battle raging among members of the Delaware River Basin Commission has as much to do with the potential water pollution impacts of gas drilling, as it does with water usage.
Paulachok has no regulatory power and does not set policy. His job is to make sure enough water flows downriver to communities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
And his tenure comes to an end this month, when he’s set to retire. In the meantime, gas drilling along the Delaware river remains in limbo while the Basin Commission struggles to come to an agreement on new regulations.