Faculty Fellows: Protecting New York’s Groundwater

Laura Lautz (principal investigator), Jessie Page Heroy Professor and chair, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University

Greg Hoke, associate professor and associate chair, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University

Zunli Lu, associate professor and director of graduate studies, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University

Project: The team sampled well water in five counties in New York’s Southern Tier to compare water methane levels against those in Pennsylvania, where there is hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale, in an attempt to gauge the environmental impact of hydrofracking in a more accurate way. “The two areas are very similar,” says Lautz. “The geology is the same, the climate is the same. The only major difference is the presence of hydrofracking.”

Nuts and Bolts: Working with 10 homeowners across the region, the team tested the methane level of their well water once a month for a year. “Every month we provided a report to homeowners informing them what we found in their well,” says Lautz.

Why This Matters: One of the biggest concerns people have with hydrofracking is that natural gas will get into shallow ground water and contaminate people’s wells. Natural gas—composed of methane—also occurs spontaneously. “We are trying to understand why people have methane in their wells naturally so that we might be able to differentiate what’s natural from what’s unnatural,” Lautz says.

What They Know: Some homeowners have negligible amounts of methane in their water, while others “could probably light their tap on fire,” Lautz says. That range is normal. “What we’ve found is that the wells with high methane have been consistently high all year around. It
looks like if someone has a methane problem and it’s natural, it’s consistent and stays that way.”

SyracuseCoE Impact: A $25,000 competitive award from SyracuseCoE funded a full year of water sampling and analysis, as well as a stipend for Syracuse University Earth sciences doctoral student Amanda Schultz, who has coordinated sample collection with the homeowners. “We absolutely would not have had the financial resources to collect the water samples and do the laboratory analysis without SyracuseCoE funding,” Lautz says.

And Another Thing: This project is a component of the ongoing Project SWIFT (ShaleWater Interaction in Forensic Tools), a large-scale water quality program in the Marcellus Shale region. “We have been to more than 200 homes in southern New York to collect baseline data,” says Lautz. “It’s super important. If they ever do hydrofrack in New York, we have a lot of information on what things were like beforehand.”