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Big Sewickley Creek fracking water withdrawal plan revives worry about threatened fish

A creek runs through a forest as sunlight filters through the trees.
Katie Stanlety
Big Sewickley Creek Watershed Association
Big Sewickley Creek in Beaver County, Pa.

A fracking company’s plan to withdraw water from a Western Pennsylvania trout stream is causing concern among biologists and local activists about its potential impact on a Pennsylvania-threatened species that depends on the stream for breeding.

Findlay, Pa.-based PennEnergy Resources received approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for a water withdrawal permit on January 29. The permit will allow the company to extract 1.5 million gallons of water a day from Big Sewickley Creek. The DEP had previously rejected a plan to withdraw 3 million gallons a day from the stream.

Big Sewickley Creek is a trout-stocked stream that runs through Allegheny and Beaver counties. The company’s permit allows it to withdraw water from a point in Economy Borough, Beaver County.

Brady Porter, an associate professor of biology at Duquesne University, worries the water withdrawal plan will harm the creek’s threatened redbelly dace. “These are really spectacular, colored minnow,” Porter said.

Porter said he is worried withdrawing water will make the stream more turbid, which would harm the dace’s ability to find a mate.

“They have a beautiful red belly, as their name might imply, and golden black stripes on their side,” Porter said. “They obviously use those in their mating rituals and if they cannot see because turbidity’s kicked up, that can impact their breeding.”

Why not from the Ohio River?

In 2021, the DEP rejected PennEnergy’s bid to withdraw 3 million gallons a day from Big Sewickley Creek’s main stem and north fork. Despite its name, the creek measures only about 6 feet across at its north fork and 40 feet across at the main stem, Porter said.

The DEP said that the proposal failed to demonstrate that the water withdrawals would not “adversely impact a public natural resource.”

PennEnergy later re-submitted a revised plan, calling for a smaller withdrawal of 1.5 million gallons a day from just the main stem of Big Sewickley Creek. After receiving and responding to a number of deficiency notices from the DEP, PennEnergy’s revised proposal was approved earlier this year.

Still, Porter said he was skeptical about the DEP’s ability to accurately gauge the cost of granting a water withdrawal permit for Big Sewickley Creek.

“I think there’s a lot of unknowns here. They’re working on water discharge data from the 1980s, which is the last time that it had a USGS gauge installed in it,” he said. “It’s not really clear what the current discharge is, but they’re modeling is all kind of based on old obsolete data, certainly not the best available science.”

Given the size and fragility of the red belly dace population in Big Sewickley Creek, Porter said PennEnergy should consider drawing water from the Ohio River.

“Why draw from a small stream that only has a 30-square-mile drainage area when the Ohio River is only two miles away, and you could pull all the water you want without potentially impacting a state-threatened species?” Porter said. “Big Sewickley Creek will not support the water levels they’re talking about for more than about 1 or 2 months out of the year. And so I don’t even think it’s a viable water source for their proposal.”

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PennEnergy declined to comment. The DEP said in an emailed statement: “The proposed waterline source, route, and associated intake is considered the least impactful of the potential options/alternatives for obtaining and utilizing water for development.”

The DEP did not elaborate and did not respond to questions about why an alternative withdrawal plan was not sought or if the agency had enough wildlife monitoring capability to ensure the plan would not threaten the dace.

The company said it needed the water “for activities associated with the drilling and hydro-fracturing of natural gas wells.”

Fracking, as the process is commonly known, requires millions of gallons of water, plus sand and chemicals, to fracture gas-rich rock layers far below the ground.

“This intake will be used for development of wells in the direct vicinity and will be used for a period of one to three months, followed by several months or years of inactivity,” the company said in its application.

Environmental groups critical of plan

The plan has drawn criticism from a group of local activists.

“You don’t have to be an employee of the Army Corps of Engineers or a biologist or anything like that to understand that there’s not enough water in there in the summer,” said Katie Stanley, President of the Big Sewickley Creek Watershed Association. “And that’s what really concerns people, is that the water’s already dangerously low.”

Stanley said the community surrounding Big Sewickley Creek felt their concerns weren’t adequately considered during the permit’s approval process.

“Over 200 people wrote to the DEP in opposition. Only two (groups) were for this withdrawal, the (industry trade group) Marcellus Shale Coalition and PennEnergy, both of which profit from fracking operations. So it’s tough to see that the people that live in it and are impacted by it don’t really get a say,” Stanley said.

“The good thing that came out of this tough process is it shows that people are willing to speak up still about something they care about and stand up for the environment,” Stanley said. “I don’t want this approval to discourage people from continuing to speak up.”

Read more from our partners, The Allegheny Front.