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Statewide study to pool water info

| Sunday, Dec. 7, 2003

State officials, in conjunction with scores of private citizens serving on regional planning committees, have launched a five-year effort to catalog Pennsylvania's water needs and resources. The plan that finally emerges will have potential consequences for drought management and commercial and residential development in the state.

The Ohio River Basin committee, one of six regional panels appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell, will hold a public meeting Tuesday in Westmoreland County. It will be the committee's second gathering, and the first time it delves into specifics.

A final statewide water management report is not expected until 2008.

Officials say the goal is to determine how much water Pennsylvanians use and the amount of water that is available to the state from both surface sources -- rivers, streams and such -- and underground sources such as aquifers and abandoned mine sites.

A coalition of interest groups, including the state Farm Bureau and the state Chamber of Commerce and Industry, helped push the water management legislation through the General Assembly in the final days of the Schweiker administration.

The passage of Act 220 followed years of frustration during which officials have dealt with a series of droughts without much factual basis for understanding water consumption rates and the degree to which underground pools of water were being recharged by rain and snowfall, officials said.

"We don't know how much water we have," said Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Just as critical as drought management, officials say, the statewide planning document should help decision-makers in government and the private sector to pinpoint development conflicts and opportunities.

Rathbun cited the case of a Centre County orchard owner who protested the siting of a stone quarry near his place by claiming the quarry operation would consume an excessive amount of water -- enough to ruin his business.

"It's going to help everyone plan better," said Sharon Roth, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. "Assessing needs will be part of it, and (water) needs vary from region to region."

"We want to get a better handle on who is using water," said Ronald Rohall, of Rector, chairman of the Ohio River Basin committee.

"I think we have enough water. We are very blessed," said Rohall, who helped organize the Loyalhanna Watershed Association.

At the same time, Rohall noted "conflicts" over water already exist. For instance, rafters and other sportsmen frequently besiege the Army Corps of Engineers over pool levels on the Youghiogheny River, and Westmoreland and Fayette counties have butted heads over withdrawals from the Yough.

In addition, during droughts, state officials are often called on to make decisions to ban the use of water for washing cars and, in the direst circumstances, to curtail business hours.

According to Rohall, the completed water management document might well highlight the value of open space versus development.

He said he was especially interested that the six regional committees, reporting to a statewide committee and eventually to the Department of Environmental Protection secretary, take a stab at determining precipitation "infiltration" rates into underground pools -- a process that has likely been retarded by the increasing number of acres paved over in recent years.

A brochure prepared by DEP and distributed to farmers states that "the rapid expansion of businesses and new housing into rural areas has strained surface and ground water supplies. Local officials will now be able to consider how much water is being used and how much is still available, and limit development before water-use and water-quality conflicts arise."

State officials are adamant that Act 220 is for water resources planning only. They note it does not "establish water allocation or withdrawal requirements, and does not give DEP authority to regulate, control or require permits for the withdrawal of water."

However, Act 220 does require farmers and others to register with the state in the event they withdraw or use 10,000 or more gallons of water per day. Users of fewer than 10,000 gallons are being asked to register voluntarily.

The registration period opened in September. Registrations must be completed by March 16, 2004.

Rathbun said it was too early to determine the rate at which farmers are registering their water usage. The farming community is the prime target of the registration drive, since many, if not most, farmers utilize water from such nonmetered sources as ponds and streams.

Some farmers have been reluctant to embrace the water registration program, fearing, according to several local conservation district directors, that state officials would someday attempt to regulate the amount of water they could use based on the farmers' own calculations.

Richard Lehman, a farmer from the Burgettstown area of Washington County and a member of the Ohio River Basin committee, said that in case of drought it was important for farmers "to place on the record the amount of water" they use and need. He said regulation of water was not an issue.

The Ohio River Basin includes all or parts of 23 counties in southwestern and northwestern Pennsylvania. The regional committee is composed of 23 members representing local government, environmental groups, agriculture, business and industry and professionals such as attorneys and geologists. Fayette County Commissioner Vincent Vicites is part of the group.

Tuesday's meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the Westmoreland Conservation District office, 211 Donohoe Road, Hempfield Township.

The last water management plan was completed in 1978. Since 1900, residential use of water has increased from five gallons to 62 gallons per person per day, according to the DEP.

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