Cynthia Walter, an ecologist at St. Vincent College outside Pittsburgh, gets a lot of emails from local wildlife enthusiasts asking about "this bird" or "that amphibian."
But one day last year she got an uncommon request to inspect the forest cover around the Beaver Run Reservoir via Google Earth. The 1,300-acre lake is the main source of drinking water for 80,000 residents in southwestern Pennsylvania. It also rests atop the enormous Marcellus Shale gas reserve.
"Are those natural gas wells on the peninsulas?" she recalls the email sender asking.
Immediately, Walter spotted a square of barren earth on the satellite map. Later she learned that a company called CNX Gas had drilled more than a dozen wells on that bald patch from two sprawling well pads, using a controversial technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, to release gas trapped in layers of shale rock deep underground.
"I was kind of shocked. I've been on Beaver Run for 27 years and had no idea," Walter said. Nor was she aware that over the past decade or so about 100 shallow natural gas wells had been drilled throughout the reservoir.
But the gas operations were hardly a secret. Besides being visible by air, records obtained by InsideClimate News in response to requests reveal that the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, the local water utility, had leased the watershed in 1999 precisely to cash in on drilling opportunities.
The agency gets a 12.5 percent payment rate on the gas produced by wells on the reservoir. Utility officials say leasing Beaver Run allows it to raise money for infrastructure upgrades without increasing customer rates.
Despite the money that drillers are dangling, documents and interviews show that Westmoreland County appears to be the only local water authority in the state to have leased acreage to drillers.
Many others are being courted, though. And before they follow Westomoreland County's lead, local advocates want regulations to bar drilling in watersheds that provide a primary drinking water source.
Neighboring New York State, which has yet to tap the Marcellus Shale, recently proposed such rules to ban hydrofracking in watersheds and aquifers that supply drinking water. But in Pennsylvania an all-out prohibition will likely meet resistance from some policymakers and the gas industry.
The state, nicknamed the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, has more than 2,000 gas wells, with 60,000 expected in the year 2030, which would eat up at least 90,000 acres and transform the state's southern landscape while also bringing wealth to budget-strapped localities.
Outrage in Westmoreland County
Fracking began at Beaver Run in 2008 — one year, incidentally, after the municipal authority upheld a fishing ban in the reservoir due to public health concerns.
CNX says it has plans for up to 30 shale gas wells at the reservoir from five different drilling sites. Both CNX and the water authority have groundwater monitoring wells around the reservoir. As an extra precaution, CNX is drilling five well casings instead of the state-mandated two.
So far, the company has a good record at the site, without any violations from state regulators.
Still, many residents like Walter wonder how drilling was permitted in a reservoir watershed where virtually all other activities are banned. Others are angry they weren't informed about the gas development and feel excluded from a public decision.
When Joe Evans, a medical engineer and member of Citizens for the Preservation of Rural Murrysville, saw aerial maps of the reservoir in 2009, he was stunned.
"I was shocked that a process that I was finding to be dangerous was allowed to take place on a reservoir property, where even hiking and fishing from the banks is prohibited for fear of pollution," he said.
Brien Palmer, a business technology consultant and fellow member of the citizens group, said he's not opposed to gas drilling but questions the judgment of the water utility. "The fact that they would drill near a drinking water source first, and not as a last resort, is astonishing," he said. "I'm just not sure what I can say to someone who can't see the absurdity of fracking in a drinking well basin."
Daniel Jonczak, an electrical engineer who lives two miles from the Beaver Run Reservoir, says that he, too, is a far cry from an anti-drilling activist. He grew up in the 1970s, when Westmoreland County's streams flowed orange from acid mine drainage. So extreme was the damage, Jonczak laments, that local creeks were given names like coal tar run. Gas was always seen as less polluting.
Yet the decision to lease Beaver Run Reservoir has him extremely worried.
"Are we really sure what's going on with MAWC [Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County] and the water supplied to half of Westmoreland County?" asked Jonczak. "The chance of a spill is just too huge. I don't think they were aware of the risks."