Fishing czar: Charge for water
Harrisburg — It was an unintentional prop, but one with great meaning.
Recently, John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, presented his agency’s annual report to the House of Representatives Game and Fisheries Committee at the state Capital in Harrisburg.
While he spoke, he had a bottle of water sitting next to him.
No one asked about it, but before the hearing ended, Arway tied it to what could be a revolutionary way of generating revenue for the state and the commission.
Arway told lawmakers that they should seek compensation from industry for the water pulled from Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams each and every day. Right now, that’s not happening.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission charges industry about 27 cents per 1,000 gallons of water from that river; the Delaware River Basin Commission charges about 8 cents per 1,000 gallons, Arway said.
But that money is used to replace what water is taken out, Arway said. No one, meanwhile, regulates who takes water out of the Ohio River drainage, nor does anyone pay to replace it.
The commission itself makes a little money by selling water. It’s getting $5 per 1,000 gallons taken from Donegal Lake in Westmoreland County. The water is being purchased by a Marcellus shale deep well driller.
But, beyond that, the state is letting industry take its water for free. That’s the way things have been for a long, long time, Arway added.
“Shallow well gas drillers in the Allegheny National Forest have been pulling all of the water for their operations from our rivers for decades without paying a penny for it. Farmers do the same,” Arway said. “Anyone with a tanker truck can pull up to our water and take what they want without the commonwealth getting a thing for it.”
That’s not the way things work elsewhere, he said. In the West – where water is a scarce commodity – industry routinely pays for water, he said.
If Pennsylvania started doing the same, it could reap big benefits, he said. Each bottle of water might represent more than $8,000 worth of revenue for every 1,000 gallons of water sold, he said. The state could generate $36 million based just on just what the Susquehanna River Basin Commission is doing, he added.
There’s precedent for such a program.
“Water is the same as the sand and gravel that we allow industry to pull from our rivers for use in their businesses,” Arway said. “They pay for it. It’s a common property of all the people.
“So companies that benefit from using public water should compensate the commonwealth, too.”
Lawmakers on the committee expressed some interest in the idea, though it’s clear there are a lot of specifics that would have to be worked out.
State Rep. Ed Staback, the Lackawanna County Democrat who serves as minority chairman of the committee, for example, had questions about how the Susquehanna River Basin Commission program even works.
Rep. John Evans, the Crawford County Republican who serves as majority chairman of the committee, asked how any money generated from selling water should be allocated. His first impression seemed to be that Arway was asking for the commission to get all of the money.
“Shouldn’t the commonwealth receive the funds because the water belongs to it?” Evans asked.
That is indeed the case, Arway said. He said he would expect that lawmakers would decide how to allocate that money, with some going to townships for repair of bridges over streams and rivers, some going to water treatment facilities – and some going to the Fish & Boat Commission because anglers and boaters use the waterways from which the water is being taken.
Exactly who should get money and in what proportion is something the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee could determine, he suggested.
“It’s unlimited how this could be constructed,” Arway said.
Whether there’s any interest in the idea may become clear soon. Arway said he will be “going on the road” to talk about the idea with constituents – from sportsmen to lawmakers – in the near future.
“It’s a message we want to get out and see how it resonates,” Arway said.