What's water worth? Depends on whom you ask.
To some 850,000 trout anglers expected to hit Pennsylvania's lakes and streams for today's statewide opening of trout season, that's like asking the value of a day out fishing with your dad.
But for industries that extract Pennsylvania's most abundant natural resource from 83,000 miles of streams and rivers, nearly 4,000 lakes and an estimated 80 trillion gallons hidden underground, water is free. Billions of gallons per day are taken at no cost, much of it never to be returned to the citizens who own it.
With a $9 million budget shortfall threatening to hit the state Fish and Boat Commission in 2017, executive director John Arway said he's "searching high and low" for alternative funding to hold afloat an agency financed mostly by anglers and boaters. One idea with possible legal precedent and tentative bipartisan support in Harrisburg is imposing a new fee for the "consumptive use" of water, with revenues going to Fish and Boat and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Consumptive use refers specifically to water that is extracted by industry and permanently removed from the environment, Mr. Arway said.
"When people drink water or take a shower, it's returned through the sewage system," he said. "When farmers irrigate fields it drains back into the ground. The Pennsylvania Constitution says we, the citizens, own the water. Some of these companies take it out of the environment, use it for free and it's gone, never returned to Pennsylvania's environment."
The bottled water industry, for instance, pays nothing to remove it from the state's waterways. It treats and packages water and ships much of it out of the state. The Marcellus Shale industry also extracts water for free. The process of hydraulic fracturing pumps much of it so far below the water table it is rendered forever unusable. Other industries make similar permanent use of water.
"That's our water they're taking for free," Mr. Arway said. "They're stealing the resource from us, and that makes me mad."
In the American West, most land ownership includes water rights. But in Eastern states, including Pennsylvania, rules dating to English common law leave most flowing water and the aquatic life that inhabits it in a trust owned by the citizens of the state.
Under a 1940s state law, dredging companies that remove sand and gravel from the riverbeds of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers compensate the state with revenues shared by Fish and Boat and DEP, agencies with roles in managing those waterways. Mr. Arway sees the law as precedent for a new regulation that would compensate the state for the permanent extraction of water.
The idea has conceptual support from Republicans and Democrats in Harrisburg. Submitted in March with bipartisan co-sponsorship, State Senate Resolution 39 would allocate money to study the issue and recommend an as-yet undetermined fee structure for the permanent use and degradation of water.
"Billions of gallons of water are either never returned to Pennsylvania's water cycle or returned in a degraded condition each day, and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania receives no compensation for either the consumptive use or degradation of water," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Adams, Franklin and York counties, in a written statement. The resolution is in committee.
The bottled water industry supports regulation of the industrial use of water. But Chris Hogan of the International Bottled Water Association said the trade group opposes the kind of state-levied fees suggested by Mr. Arway.
"The consumptive use of water for bottled water is arguably one of the highest and most appropriate consumptive uses of water in a product, since it quite literally is then directly consumed by consumers," Mr. Hogan said.
In 2008, the bottled water association supported ratification of the Great Lakes Compact, which addresses commercial water extraction from the Great Lakes Basin, including Pennsylvania. But more than a dozen Pennsylvania-based bottlers extract water from outside the Lake Erie Basin. Most, including the Nestle brand's Poland Springs Water, KD Service's Great Oak Spring Water Co., Pure Elements H2O and 3 Springs Water, draw from the Susquehanna and Delaware river drainages.
In 2009, the state denied the request of a bottled water startup company to drain more than 100,000 gallons a day from the Laurel Hill Creek watershed in Somerset County. The DEP said the withdrawal would significantly diminish the flow of the popular trout stream and its tributaries and cause environmental damage.
With DEP oversight of its operations in Pennsylvania, water bottlers are subject to permit and inspection fees and taxes. Considering that much of the product is returned to the environment from which it came, Mr. Hogan said the bottled water industry is actually a "net importer of water into states in the region."
The association's national water policy statement supports government involvement in long-term sustainable water usage. It opposes, however, "targeted state and federal fees placed on its members' operations and products, but is happy to review broad-based proposed user fees to determine whether or not they are equitable for all, including the bottled water industry," said Mr. Hogan.
The Marcellus Shale industry moves water from the surface to deep underground. Each drilling site uses 3 million to 5 million gallons, almost all of it during the hydraulic fracturing stage. Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said that in 2011 in Pennsylvania drilling operations used 8 million to 10 million gallons of water per day, among the least used by water consuming industries.
A 2011 U.S. Geological Survey report said fracking operations accounted for 0.1 percent of 9.5 billion gallons of water extracted daily from the state. Mr. Forde said new cost-saving technologies developed in the past three years enable operators to reuse water used in fracking, reducing the industry's need for water.
"There's a good business case to be made for reducing water withdrawal. Transporting it to the well and then disposing of it -- it's expensive," he said. "In our business, hydraulic fracturing is where water is utilized, and the truth is we're not using as much water as we did just a few years ago."
A DEP spokesman said the resolution, which would provide new revenue to the department, is under review. Mr. Arway said water usage revenues would provide a partial remedy for Fish and Boat, which runs on a $55 million annual budget mostly derived from license and permit fees and a federal excise tax on fishing and boating gear and fuel. He said the $9 million shortfall will hit in four years in the form of employee pension obligations and growing infrastructure expenses.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, email@example.com.