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Lack of Federal Funds Leaves Regional Water Watchdog High and Dry

Some 15 million people count on Delaware River basin for potable water, but oversight commission can't afford to do critical testing

Carol Collier, executive director, Delaware River Basin Commission.
Carol Collier, executive director, Delaware River Basin Commission.

Will New Jerseyans’ taps run dry if there’s a severe drought brought on by climate change? Will freshwater intakes be flooded with salt water if rising sea levels coincide with declining flow in the Delaware River? Would natural gas drilling contaminate groundwater if it’s allowed in the river basin?

The interstate agency that oversees water quality and supply for some 15 million people in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware doesn’t know the answer to those questions because it says it doesn’t have the funding to find out.

Without federal funds, the Delaware River Basin Commission can’t afford to investigate those and other major questions. It's now renewing its efforts to get that funding restored.

In her last six months as DRBC executive director, Carol Collier has placed funding restoration high on a wish-list of unfinished business that she would like to get done before she retires in March next year.

The commission, representing the governors of the four basin states plus the federal government, has received no federal funding for 16 of the past 17 years despite a “tacit” agreement in 1988 that the U.S. will pay 20 percent of the agency’s operating costs. The accumulated shortfall is $10.7 million, DRBC officials say.

More recently, a cut in state funding has exacerbated the DRBC’s cash crunch. New York is paying only 39 percent of its agreed dues this year, while New Jersey lopped $200,000 off its scheduled payment, citing budget strictures.

“We reduced funding in the current fiscal year by $200,000 in light of the current fiscal climate and in line with our overall approach to responsibly managing finances,” said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

He said the state has met its obligations in prior years, adding that future funding will be determined on a year-to-year basis.

New Jersey is responsible for 25 percent of the DRBC’s budget, and paid $693,000 out of a scheduled $893,000 in the commission’s current fiscal year.

New York, which is supposed to pay 17.5 percent of the DRBC budget, paid only $246,000 of the $626,000 that would represent its agreed share this year. Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation did not return phone calls seeking comment on the shortfall.

Collier said she didn’t know why New York has sharply cut its contribution in the current year. “I wish I knew,” she said. “I have not even been able to get meetings with people up there, let alone answers. They still want us to do the work but they are not coming to the table with the dollars.”

Pennsylvania, which is responsible for 25 percent of the DRBC budget, reduced its contribution by $400,000 in fiscal 2012 but has paid or will pay extra in the subsequent three years to make up for the shortfall, said Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Delaware, which funds 12.5 percent of the budget under the agreement, has paid its full quota of $447,000 since 2012 but contributed only $127,000 in fiscal 2011.

While its current $5.6 million budget allows the Trenton-based agency to do routine work like permitting and regulatory review, the money isn’t enough to fund long-term projects such as determining whether the region’s water supply is vulnerable to sea-level rise, climate change, or the next Sandy-class storm.

“I don’t have any dollars to do special studies like that,” Collier told NJ Spotlight. “We have not been able to do the work that we should have in place to be resilient to those extreme conditions.”

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