Water getting precious in NE Pa.

Aug. 10, 2008



BERWICK — On a hazy summer day, a pair of anglers fish for bass and panfish on a man-made lake in PPL’s Susquehanna Riverlands wildlife habitat.

Above them, the massive cooling towers of the Susquehanna nuclear plant billow white plumes of vapor, the byproduct of millions of gallons of water the two reactors consume daily from the river to cool the intense heat generated by the nuclear fission process.

The demand for river water will accelerate if PPL seeks and obtains approval to build a third nuclear reactor at the Bell Bend site, now a cornfield one-half mile west of the existing plant.

It is the biggest of many new energy projects planned for Northeast Pennsylvania, most of which would place a huge new demand on a resource that Pennsylvanians often take for granted: Water.

These demands can strain the ability to meet all the region’s water needs during drought and lead to higher fees on businesses for water they consume. Future action to protect stressed watersheds is a real possibility.

Energy boom coming

Energy use already accounts for a majority of the water consumed in the Susquehanna River Basin, which drains a wide section of Pennsylvania and parts of New York and Maryland. The basin encompasses Northeast Pennsylvania except for Monroe, Pike and Wayne counties and small slices of eastern Lackawanna and Luzerne counties. Those areas are in the Delaware River Basin.

Experts forecast that water consumed by energy projects in the basin could double by 2025 as new uses emerge, including:

■ Upgrades to increase generating capacity at Susquehanna Units 1 and 2 by 13 percent each during 2008-2010.

■ The possible third nuclear reactor at the Susquehanna plant.

■ Proposed ethanol plants in Lackawanna, Lancaster and Schuylkill counties.

■ New air scrubbers and cooling towers being installed at power plants to meet federal emissions rules.

■ The water-intensive drilling of wells as the Marcellus Shale becomes the new locus of exploration for natural gas companies.

All this activity is an example of what scientists call the Water-Energy Nexus. Water is needed to produce most forms of energy, while energy is needed to extract, treat and distribute water.

“The Susquehanna River is really a workhorse for energy,” said Robert Barkanic, PPL’s Environmental Management Director.

The nuclear plants at Susquehanna and Peach Bottom in Lancaster County and PPL’s coal-fired Montour power plant are among the largest users of basin water.

But they don’t have a monopoly on basin water rights. Energy is just one thirst that needs to be quenched.

Other uses important

The cities of Baltimore and Chester rely on the Susquehannna River for drinking water. Major regional employers like Proctor & Gamble in Mehoopany use water for their manufacturing operations.

Ski resorts and golf courses use basin water for snowmaking and greens-watering. Agricultural operations take water for irrigation. Boaters enjoy an artificial lake created each summer at the forks of the Susquehanna at Sunbury.

Similar concerns exist on the Susquehanna’s many tributaries, including the Lackawanna River.

“We’re really concerned about balancing the needs,” said Bernard McGurl, director of the Lackawanna River Corridor Association. “We have a Class A trout fishery on the river. We’ve got folks who fish the river regularly.”

The Lackawanna River has enough water to support the foreseeable demands placed on it, as long as Northeast Pennsylvania avoids a serious drought, said Mr. McGurl. The main threat to the watershed, in his view, comes from brine contamination of an aquifer from the natural gas drilling boom.

“I think we could quickly have some accident and unintended consequences of midnight dumping,” added Mr. McGurl.

Regulators watching

In the view of policymakers, the Susquehanna River can continue do the work expected of it for now, but new steps may be needed to ensure future water supplies.

A little-known multi-state agency — the Susquehanna River Basin Commission — has special powers to regulate consumptive water use in the watershed. Consumptive water use includes evaporation, irrigation or manufacturing processes or being trucked away or diverted out of the basin.

“The commission recognizes that keeping up with all the activity for uses tied to energy will continue to be a challenge for us,” said SRBC director Paul Swartz.

The commission estimates that consumptive water use resulting from energy projects in the basin could double to 350 million gallons per day by 2025.

The commission recently adopted new rules to regulate water withdrawals for natural gas drilling and may invoke never-used authority to designate small protected areas in watersheds, he added.

An event last October served as a wake up call.

Power plants on the lower Susquehanna, south of Harrisburg, started running out of water because of an unusual confluence of events — river levels were low and construction crews building a new bridge had partially blocked the river flow. The SRBC held a conference call among the parties involved and the bridge obstruction was removed, said Andrew Dehoff, agency director of planning and operations.

Alternative projects may help

Pennsylvania plans to spend millions of dollars to subsidize wind energy and solar power projects in the next few years in an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil. This could lessen demands for water in the future, some observers say.

Not only is state government investing in wind and solar power, it also is providing incentives to conserve energy and requiring electric utilities to use renewable energy sources to generate power, said John Hanger, CEO of PennFuture, an environmental group pushing for alternative energy development.

“If Pennsylvania successfully increases the amount of electricity generated from the alternate technologies, the demand for water will be less,” he added.

A Pennsylvania activist gives kudos to wind and solar power for not contributing to water demands.

“When it comes to wind and solar, it doesn’t require water and that is a big plus,” said Eric Epstein of Three Mile Island Alert. “The fuelless energy is clean, leaves no residue and requires a nominal amount of water.”

PPL’s Susquehanna nuclear plant currently consumes an average of 33 million gallons of water a day. PPL has announced plans to file a license application with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a third reactor at Susquehanna.

The NRC will hold an initial public meeting on PPL’s pending license application Aug. 19 at Bloomsburg University. This meeting is to explain the process by which the NRC licenses new reactors. But PPL officials have yet to decide if they actually want to proceed with construction.

PPL won approval from the NRC earlier this year to increase the generating capacity at the two existing Susquehanna units by 13 percent each.

In a sign of increased public awareness about water issues, Mr. Epstein challenged that action in federal court. Mr. Epstein targeted PPL and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in his lawsuit, in part for not adequately addressing the impact on water use in the basin.

PPL officials point out the Susquehanna plant’s water use represents less than 1 percent of the average daily river flow. PPL draws water for the plant’s safety system from an 8-acre pond on site. In addition, PPL stores water at the Army Corps of Engineers reservoir at Cowanesque in Tioga County, said PPL spokesman George Lewis. That water can be released during times of drought.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit on a technicality, but Mr. Epstein plans to raise similar water-use issues if plans for a third Susquehanna reactor advance.

“I think people need to understand the value of water as a commodity,” he said. “They can’t view it as an inexhaustable free substance.”

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