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Feds, States Continue to Shortchange Delaware River Basin Commission

New executive director of DRBC raises concerns about protecting water quality for some 15 million people

steve tambini DRBC
Steve Tambini, executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Steve Tambini wants to ensure continuing clean water for the 15 million people who live in the Delaware River Basin, but he isn’t sure he will have the money to do so.

The new executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission -- which aims to coordinate management of water supply and quality among the basin states of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware -- is running the interstate agency without federal funding, and without some of the money that’s due from member states.

Like his predecessor, Carol Collier, Tambini is pleading with the federal government to restore the annual funding of $715,000 that it agreed to pay when the DRBC was set up in 1961 but which has been absent every year except one since 1997.

Although a new federal law directs the Secretary of the Army to fund the DRBC and two other mid-Atlantic river basin commissions, it’s far from certain that the agency will get the money that Tambini says he needs to plan for the future.

“It’s no secret that we’ve had some challenges, especially on the federal front,” he told NJ Spotlight, in an interview at the agency’s West Trenton office. “So if we could ensure ourselves of a sustainable funding source, that would advance some planning activity probably in a more sustainable way.”

Since taking office on August 1, Tambini said he has met with the federal Office of Management and Budget, and with the Secretary of the Army in the hope that the DRBC’s federal funding will be included in both the president’s next budget, and that of the Army – whose Corps of Engineers represents the federal government on the DRBC.

The Water Resource Reform and Development Act, signed by President Obama in June, was accompanied by language stating that Congress intends the DRBC and two other mid-Atlantic river basin commissions to be funded, said Clarke Rupert, a spokesman for the agency.

That raised officials’ hopes that federal funding will be restored, but it is still uncertain whether that will happen because of the long and complicated process of federal budgeting and appropriations, Rupert said.

The new law clears the way for Congress to authorize port-infrastructure projects such as dredging the channel for larger cargo ships, and is designed to help cities and local agencies such as the DRBC plan for the storms, droughts, and floods that are expected to come with climate change.

Federal funding was stopped in fiscal 1997 as part of a House-led effort to cut spending and balance the federal budget, Rupert said.

“I can’t say with certainty today that it’s going to be funded,” Tambini said.

Without the federal money, and without restoration of full dues from three of the states, the DRBC is limited in its ability to plan for the maintenance of clean, plentiful water supplies in the 330-mile-long basin from upstate New York to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, said Tambini, who was previously vice president of operations at Pennsylvania American Water.

Although this year’s absence of droughts and floods might lead people to believe that Delaware Basin water is plentiful and secure, it may become less so in future in response to expected changes from climate change and population growth.

“When we sit here in a summer like this, get a routine amount of rainfall, and the rivers aren’t flowing over the banks, it’s pretty easy to say everything’s fine, but I think that we have a responsibility to look beyond what’s going on right here and now,” Tambini said.

The DRBC’s ability to anticipate how water supply will be affected by the bigger droughts, storms, and floods that are expected to come with climate change is limited by the funding shortage, he said.

“Funding is a problem, and making sure that we have sustainable funding does impact how we can do planning, when we can do planning,” he said.

In addition, three of the four basin states are paying less than their agreed share in the current year, fiscal 2015. New Jersey, which is responsible for 25 percent of the agency’s $5.4 million budget, will be paying $693,000 this year, or $200,000 less than its scheduled annual contribution.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said New Jersey’s contribution has been cut because of “fiscal constraints.” New Jersey has been funding DRBC at the same reduced rate since 2008, state records show.

Pennsylvania, which is scheduled to provide another 25 percent of the budget, is paying only $434,000 this year, while New York is due to contribute $359,500, little more than half its scheduled payment of $626,000, according to DRBC records.

Only Delaware, which is responsible for 12.5 percent of the agency’s budget, is meeting its full obligation, with a payment of $447,000.

A little more than half, or $2.8 million, of the agency’s budget is funded by other sources including water charges, grants, and project-review fees.

Although the DRBC has learned how to live with less funding, it won’t be able to fulfill its mission of managing water quality, supply, conservation and permitting in the long term unless funding is restored, said Rupert of the DRBC.

While the agency can perform current functions, it will be unable to plan for long-term factors like climate change unless full funding is restored, officials say.

“The current path is not sustainable and more serious impacts are anticipated at some point in the future,” Rupert wrote in an email. “The use of alternative funding sources to cover funding gaps cannot continue indefinitely and does not present a sustainable path forward.”

Restoration would allow the agency to step up its research into the potentially calamitous effects of climate change, said Collier, the former executive director who retired from the DRBC in March and is now senior advisor for watershed management and policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Collier, who tried and failed to reclaim federal funding during her 15-year tenure at the DRBC, said the agency should, for example, be modeling whether a drought combined with sea-level rise would result in the salination of drinking water intakes at Tacony, north of Philadelphia, and across the river in New Jersey.

Such projects are not feasible with the current level of funding, Collier said in an interview, but acknowledged that she failed to convince federal funders. “I tried to push a lot of buttons, and I wasn’t successful.

Funding of the three mid-Atlantic river basin commissions was cut from the federal budget starting in fiscal 1997 after lawmakers led by House Republicans determined that the agencies had regional, but not national, benefits, Collier said.

She argued that withholding funding for the agencies would barely dent the federal deficit. “It’s a rounding error at best,” she said.

Collier said that a river basin commission is the most cost-effective way to manage a natural system that crosses state lines. Without an interstate body to coordinate planning, development, and regulation in such an area, different jurisdictions competing for water rights can result in costly litigation, she said.

That’s an argument backed by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that works to improve water quality in the basin.

“The watershed perspective and approach is irreplaceable,” said Maya Van Rossum, who heads DRN. “One cannot protect the flows, quality, and ecological health of this interstate river in a piecemeal fashion. It requires the comprehensive and cohesive approach that only a watershed approach can bring.”

Despite ongoing uncertainty about federal funding, Tambini sounded more confident that he would win the argument at the state level.

“From year to year there might be some ups and downs with the funding, but we’ll get on a sustainable funding path when they know the value that we produce for the basin economically and environmentally, and how we align with them, and not duplicate,” he said. “I’m very confident that we will be on a sustainable path with the states.”

He declined to predict whether or when the DRBC commissioners -- the governors of the four member states plus the Army Corps -- will exercise their authority to make a final decision on whether to lift the current moratorium on drilling for natural gas in the river basin. Any approval would be fiercely opposed by environmentalists who argue that fracking for natural gas contaminates ground water with toxic chemicals in a watershed that supplies some 15 million people.

“My role is to give the commissioners the best information that I can,” he said. “The commissioners continue to confer in good faith, and continue to deal with and get information from us on what is a dynamic and complex issue.”

Asked if the funding shortage hinders the DRBC’s ability to investigate whether natural gas drilling would contaminate the basin’s water, Tambini said the agency is already conducting baseline water sampling near test-well sites, and that will continue in the long term.

“I wouldn’t put the two necessarily together,” he said.

Jon Hurdle is a journalist based in Philadelphia.

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