In the mountains of upstate Pennsylvania, where underground fuel is plentiful but clean water to pump it up is scarce, one Philadelphia-area company has come up with a solution: "water stations."

"An average well may use as much as four to five million gallons of water" to hydraulically fracture rock and force gas to the surface, Aqua America boss Nick DeBenedictis told investors after announcing his company had collected record quarterly profits last Friday.

To flood all that water through "remote" drill sites, "they're using trucks that carry 5,000 gallons," which works out to hundreds of trucks per well, convoying from Aqua plants in towns like Sayre and Factoryville and other water-treatment locations.

But there's a more profitable way, DeBenedictis added: Starting earlier this year, "what we're doing is setting up what I'll call water stations, where we will get the water right to a spot off the major highways, so they don't have to go through these small towns and dig up the roads." Aqua "has set up four already and they're being heavily used," he said.

"I don't want to make this sound like we're going to be the next Exxon," but Aqua America is expecting a big increase in sales as gas drillers suck up Aqua product to keep fuel flowing from northern and western Pennsylvania, DeBenedictis added.

"Believe me, the regulators are very happy with what we're doing, because it's keeping the trucks off the small roads," said DeBenedictis, who headed the state Department of Environmental Resources in the 1980s before he became a utility executive.

He said his successors at DER last year also asked Aqua to come up with ways to treat polluted "flowback" water that has been threatening to overwhelm upstate wastewater treatment plants. "We have a (request for proposals) out for a mobile-type treatment unit," DeBenedictis added, "At this point the demand isn't there yet, but we'll be ready."

DeBenedictis told investors demand will soar as more wells are sunk into the Marcellus and, later, the Utica shale formations deep below Pennsylvania. "The price is unregulated," he added. "It will be more money than we would (get to) sell that one million gallons to a normal customer." As the real Exxon and other big drillers are granted more drilling permits, demand for Aqua water "will grow geometrically" over the next couple of years, he predicted.