A shallow, rocky stream in Ohio.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a natural gas and oil extraction method that has been used throughout the country for more than a decade, is episodically reducing small Eastern Ohio River basin stream levels, an Ohio Northern University study found. The fluctuations, the authors warn, could be negatively impacting aquatic life in those areas – a situation that, if confirmed by more studies and monitoring, would warrant additional environmental protection measures.

The multidisciplinary research, one of the first studies of its kind regarding fracking’s effects on smaller watershed levels in this particular region, was conducted by civil engineering major Brady Harmon; Lauren H. Logan, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Christopher Spiese, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and assistant dean for the College of Arts & Sciences; and Ryan Rahrig, Ph.D., associate professor of math and statistics.

Fracking requires significant amounts of water, combined with sand and chemical additives, pumped at high pressure to extract natural resources from subterranean shale formations. Extreme flow reductions in the studied streams occur infrequently and episodically, the researchers found, but “could have lasting negative impacts on the stream biota” and “have the potential to affect downstream users, including regionally-endangered species. The stream ecosystem might be severely impacted,” they report. The authors note that the smaller streams scrutinized, where most UOG (unconventional oil and gas) wells are located, “are much more susceptible to change than larger streams and rivers.”

Modeling revealed that 10% and 20% reductions occurred at least episodically in about half of the watersheds analyzed, amounting to 8.8% and 2.4% of active days. A consistent 9% or greater reduction in baseflow “could completely change the aquatic habit in smaller streams, and render spaces uninhabitable for many of the species which live there presently,” the study asserts.

UOG impacts on streamflow have mostly been studied in water-scarce regions such as Texas. The limited amount of such studies in water-rich areas have mostly focused on freshwater input quantities or production of flowback, the ONU study notes. For this latest research, government data itself was limited because of Ohio’s patchwork nature of water withdrawal regulations and noncomprehensive permitting requirements.

The results yielded some surprises for the researchers.

Spiese said he was surprised at “how widespread the flow reductions were. Around half of the streams had significant reductions during fracking operations. I was also naively surprised at how difficult it was to find water source locations for well pad permits,” he added. “With the sheer scope of fracking operations in Ohio alone, it is almost impossible to actually track where the water is coming from specifically.”

Logan said fracking regulations are always a shock to her. “On the one hand, we have reporting requirements in place which provide us with vast datasets on water quality, quantity, and more in the United States. And on the other hand, we are severely lacking in fracking data in regions like Southeast Ohio,” she said. The requirements and permit tracking vary by state. In Ohio, laws and proposed legislation remain in flux and can be contradictory. For instance, House Bill 57 opens state lands, including state parks, to fracking, but Spiese said “several environmental groups recently sued the state to block this law going into effect until rules are established to regulate such leases.”

According to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, the first commercial hydraulic fracturing of an oil well took place in 1949 in Oklahoma. Yet the drilling method didn’t substantially increase in Eastern Ohio’s portion of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations until about a decade ago. At that time, companies using the method predicted it would create an economic boom. Since then, the public has received it with mixed feelings, owing in large part to its underground and surface-level environmental impact, which studies like ONU’s are continuing to address.

Fracking well in Southeast Ohio.In places like Guernsey County, evidence of fracking is pervasive, Spiese said. “Although it is sometimes billed as having a small footprint, wells are everywhere. Trucks carrying materials to and from the well pads fly down the roads. Gas pipelines and compressor stations poke up randomly all over the area,” he explained.

ONU’s study originated from Spiese’s water quality work with the American Geophysical Union’s program Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX). Spiese became the scientific lead on a project examining water quality and quantity issues in and around Cambridge, Ohio, which then expanded into Barnesville, Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania. Their team included Leatra Harper from FreshWater Accountability Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting freshwater resources. Working with the TEX team, “I eventually expanded the research to encompass the entire Ohio River basin that is underlain by shale formations,” Spiese said.

Logan’s fracking expertise stems from her studies, which have provided her with additional perspective from what she experienced as a child growing up in Athens, Ohio, not far from where fracking occurs. She learned about the method during graduate school; a hydrogeology course taught about the science and mechanics of fracking and the potential for water reduction in the surrounding area. Her Ph.D. research focused on ecological impacts in waterways from power infrastructure.

“My dissertation research highlighted thermal pollution from thermoelectric power plants (e.g. coal, nuclear and natural gas), but I had always wanted to dig deeper, pun intended, into fracking and its impact on waterways,” she said.

Logan remembers an anti-fracking billboard that appeared in her region when she was a child, suggesting the water was not safe to drink. There are places in the U.S. where this is the case, such as the lead problem in Flint, Michigan, and when algae blooms occur in Lake Erie, she said, but are considered outliers among the larger U.S. drinking water infrastructure. As a scientist, she now knows about the regulatory measures to keep people safe. “The U.S. public water supplies are tested daily and follow the Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. …That anti-fracking billboard scared me. Now, as an adult, for me it isn’t about whether fracking is right or wrong, but about how we manage wells and accurately report the impacts in a scientific, but also easy-to-understand way,” she said.

Rahrig’s mathematical work proved integral to data deciphering and translation. He said he enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the research.

“As a statistician, I welcome opportunities to collaborate with faculty in their research areas,” said Rahrig. “This project involved a very large amount of data, and I enjoyed developing and implementing methods that enabled the information to be analyzed thoroughly. “

Spiese and Logan said this study was conducted from a purely scientific perspective, with no policy approach in mind, but that doesn’t mean its results couldn’t have additional impact.

“As a scientist, I aim to be an honest broker – I don’t have an agenda,” Spiese said. “I’m not out here as a firm anti-fracking warrior, but neither am I a pro-fracking fanatic. I want to present the data so that it informs debates and hopefully leads to better policies and conclusions.” He said while he’s presented their findings at multiple conferences, Harper has also shared their work with other environmental groups and sent some commissioned reports to all Ohio legislators.

Logan teaches fracking in her geotechnical engineering course. “Disseminating the information to future engineers, with a balanced and fair representation, is key to the continuation of fracking research,” Logan adds. “In fact, this is why I brought Brady Harmon into the project since he is planning to pursue graduate studies in the future with a focus on environmental engineering.”

And, “one can always do more research!” Logan pointed out. “The question becomes, ‘Which question should we ask next?’ How can we take the results from this work and move forward to increase our understanding of the water impacts from hydraulic fracking?”

This story is part of a series on sustainability efforts and studies at Ohio Northern University.