Lack of Federal Funds Leaves Regional Water Watchdog High and Dry

Jon Hurdle | October 11, 2013 | More Issues
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.
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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Restored funding would allow her, for example, to hire scientists to study whether Philadelphia’s freshwater intakes on the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers would be flooded with seawater if a severe drought coincided with rising sea levels.

The Delaware River’s flow currently prevents salty water going any further upstream than Marcus Hook on the Delaware Bay but the saltwater could move further toward city water supplies if the river’s flow declines because of drought while ocean levels rise.

“Our job right now is to keep enough fresh water flowing down the river to keep that salt out of the intakes,” Collier said. “With sea-level rise, how much more water do we need to flow down the Delaware? Does that come from New York City reservoirs? There’s a lot of vulnerability that needs to be addressed.”

If she had the money, Collier said she would hire scientists to study whether the basin could control floods and sustain drinking water supply in the event of another major storm like Sandy. The agency’s staffing shrank to 39 from 46 in the early 2000s.

“Are we prepared for that or not?” she said. “We don’t have the models in place. We have not been able to do some of the flood mitigation that has been recommended by some of the different flood advisory committees.”

The funding shortfall has also prevented DRBC from studying the impact of possible natural gas drilling in the basin, amid claims by anti-fracking groups that drilling would leak toxic chemicals into aquifers that supply water to millions of people.

Collier said she hasn’t been able to do enough baseline testing of water quality so that the impact of gas drilling could be assessed if a current moratorium on gas drilling in the basin is lifted.

Explaining the funding crisis, Collier blamed a decision by Congress in 1996 to transfer the president’s representation on the DRBC from the Department of the Interior to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The change was designed to keep the federal government represented without having to pay its portion of the funding, Collier said.

The change ended DRBC’s funding under a mechanism in the president’s budget that paid for the running of independent agencies, and made it dependent instead on Congressional appropriations – which have been absent for every year but one since 1997, Collier said.

Still, her efforts to restore funding got a boost in May this year when the U.S. Senate passed a bill, led by Delaware Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons and backed by senators from the other three basin states, directing the federal government to resume paying its agreed share of DRBC’s budget. The proposal is now before the House.

Because of the federal government shutdown, Carper could not be reached for comment.

Collier says she’s not counting on congressional approval, so is simultaneously trying to persuade several executive-branch offices to restore the funding using the argument that an interstate commission is a cost-effective way of regulating the 330-mile-long watershed, which stretches from the river’s headwaters near Hancock, NY, to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Before the DRBC was established in 1961, the basin’s water resources were overseen by several dozen state and federal agencies.

Those agencies include the Army Corps of Engineers and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the office of Vice President Joe Biden, who as a Delaware senator was active in pressing for DRBC funding.

“I don’t know why it should come through Congress when it was always in the President’s budget,” Collier said.

But Justin Ward, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ North Atlantic Division, said Congress would have to approve any restored funding.

“When it has been funded, it’s been funded through congressional appropriation,” he said.

Still, Collier hopes that restored federal funding would encourage the states to pay their full share.

“If I can get reinstatement of the federal dollars that will be the impetus for the states to come back to the table,” she said.