The chanting was audible from a block away.
“Save our water! Save our water! Save our water!”
At least 30 protesters had gathered Saturday outside the Tuscarawas County Courthouse to voice displeasure with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District’s dealings with oil and gas drillers — “frackers,” as the protesters called them.
Inside at their annual meeting, conservancy district leaders were recapping the state of the district, a public entity that owns and maintains 14 dams, their resulting reservoirs and the parks and campgrounds that surround them. The audience included members of the Conservancy Court, comprised of 18 common pleas court judges — one from each of the counties wholly within the district’s boundaries.
Protesters said they hoped to highlight “the hypocrisy of the conservancy district not actually being about conservancy,” said Josh Harris, a Mount Vernon resident and a member of an anti-fracking group, Stewards of the Land.
Their beef comes from two district actions:
» The leasing of mineral rights on or under district land to oil and gas drillers who plan to use the controversial horizontal hydraulic fracturing technique — known commonly as fracking — to unlock fossil fuels from beneath a geological formation known as the Utica Shale.
» The sale of millions of gallons of water from the district’s man-made lakes to drillers for use in fracking.
Inside the courthouse, district administrators summarized their defense.
Conservation director Sean Logan, a frequent target of the protesters’ ire, argued the district’s multi-billion gallon reservoirs provided a water source more appropriate for large withdrawals than rivers or streams.
Jim Pringle, the district’s attorney, said the agency has a statutory duty and precedents in policy that direct officials to at least consider proposals for the beneficial use of reservoir water, which includes industrial purposes.
Many of those gathered in opposition weren’t persuaded by these arguments.
Allen Schwartz, with a guitar slung across his shoulders, said what it boiled down to was the permanent loss of water from the watershed. All water used in drilling is considered brine by the state, and all but a tiny percentage must be disposed of in deep underground injection wells.
“If you take the water from the Licking River, you’re taking it from St. Louisville, from Newark, from Utica — that’s reality,” the Newark man said, referring to the pumping of water for fracking from the Licking River, which is not controlled by the conservancy district.
As for fracking on district lands, Executive Director John Hoopingarner said officials have built protections into the leases that put in place hard-line rules agreed to by out-of-state megafirms such as Chesapeake Energy or Gulfport Energy.
“The standard oil and gas lease is two pages long,” he told the judges. “We’ve developed a 13-page addendum.”
Several people who addressed the court in opposition to the fracking-related activities accused district leaders of greed.
The district’s annual report, which was approved at the meeting, shows how the influx of cash from just one agreement has changed the landscape.
The Gulfport deal, the only one of the three Utica Shale leases signed that was consummated in 2011, was worth more than $15 million and pushed revenue from overall mineral rights and royalties to $15.9 million last year, up from the standard $273,321 recorded in 2010.
Two deals signed this year will provide upfront payments of more than $22 million.
The Gulfport money was turned into a healthy carryover, and it erased $5.4 million in debt and provided $5.5 million allocated to renovating district facilities, including upgrades to campgrounds.
In all, Hoopingarner said, a preliminary review of the district’s facilities and infrastructure has found $80 million in work needed. He said the district expects to use oil and gas money to make those repairs and improvements.
Representatives from several high-profile environmental advocates, including the Sierra Club of Ohio, the Buckeye Forest Council and the Ohio Environmental Council, urged the Conservancy Court to resist the moves.
However, the court only has supervisory authority, such as approving a per-gallon cost, over long-term water deals, said Edward O’Farrell, of Tuscarawas County.
“We don’t have any authority to involve ourselves as a division court in the short-term sales,” the presiding judge said.
Logan told the judges he expects Cadiz, which has an intake facility at Tappan Lake that serves as the village’s primary water source, will ask for the volume of water in its contract to be expanded so it can sell the water to drillers for fracking.