Drinking water supplies for some 15 million residents of the Delaware River basin will come under increasing threat from climate change and sea-level rise in coming years, and need continued protection from a vigilant interstate regulator, the outgoing head of the Delaware River Basin Commission said.
DRBC Executive Director Carol Collier said the regulator has scored some wins for water quality in her 15 years in office but warned that the quality and quantity of the basin’s water faces future stresses from extreme weather and the projected rise of ocean levels that have the potential to salinate drinking-water sources in the lower Delaware.
“I don’t think we’ve yet seen the most severe drought or the worst flood on record,” she said in a farewell speech to the commission in mid-March. “I believe that the DRBC is needed now more than ever.”
The DRBC, set up in 1961, is charged with ensuring water quality in the 330-mile-long basin between upstate New York and the mouth of the Delaware Bay. It attempts to unite the interests of the four basin states — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware — and those of the federal government, which is represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Collier listed plans for drought management and flood control as achievements during her tenure, and said the DRBC’s new limits for carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) represented a “new direction for how to deal with persistent toxics.”
Other milestones, she said, include the establishment of Special Protection Waters, a designation designed to prevent water-quality degradation that now applies to the river from Hancock, NY, to Trenton. She also mentioned creating a 45-point flood-mitigation plan after three floods hit the basin from 2004 to 2006.
But she said other major goals, including the resumption of federal government funding to the DRBC, and a long-awaited agreement on whether to allow natural gas drilling in the basin — both of which were on a “wish list” of projects she wanted to achieve before stepping down — have yet to be reached.
Collier told NJ Spotlight in an interview she was “frustrated” that the federal government still isn’t paying the $715,000 a year that it agreed to contribute to the DRBC’s $5.6 million budget, but which has been absent every year but one since 1997.
She said some funding may yet be restored through federal legislation that would increase funding for the Trenton-based DRBC and other river-basin commissions, but that the measure is still under discussion in Congress.
Collier has argued that more funding would allow her staff to step up research into potential threats to water quality like the possibility that rising sea levels could inundate drinking water inlets in heavily populated areas in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, or that gas drilling could contaminate aquifers with toxic chemicals, as claimed by environmentalists.
But she acknowledged in the interview that even a resumption of the federal contribution would not fully fund a thorough investigation into the potential hazards of gas drilling.
“When we were estimating how much it would cost to do a real cumulative impact study, it was in the millions over a very short time period so the $715,000 that the federal government owes us annually would certainly go toward more staff but it would not have allowed us to do everything we wanted to do,” she said.
Maya van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group, said Collier took a technocratic approach to the job, and on the hotly contested gas-drilling debate, refused to be swayed by either the gas industry or its opponents in the environmental movement.
“It’s not true that she was bought off by one side or another,” van Rossum said.
She argued that gas drilling remains undecided because the four governors are split. She accused Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a staunch ally of the booming gas industry in his own state, of trying to “strong-arm” other governors into lifting the moratorium. While Delaware and New York want the ban to remain, New Jersey and the Army Corps have been less clear about their positions, and appear to be “in flux,” she said.
Van Rossum attributed the continuing stalemate to “politicking” and argued that drilling in the basin would have already been banned if the DRBC made its decision on the basis of the experience in Pennsylvania where communities near gas wells complain of contaminated water and air, and disruption to rural environments.
In November 2011, the commission abruptly canceled a vote on whether to lift the gas moratorium after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said he would not support the plan until more is known about the health effects of drilling and fracking, the controversial method of extracting gas from deep shale beds.
Markell’s decision prompted speculation that the commission dropped the proposal because there were insufficient votes to end the moratorium, a decision that would open up the basin to thousands of wells into the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
Asked why the commission still hasn’t made a final decision on gas drilling, Collier said technical staff members are continuing studies that would allow the commissioners to make a decision.
“It’s a very complex issue, and we have four states and the federal government that have to come together on how they want to regulate it in the basin, and they don’t want to jump to conclusions, they want to make sure they have it right,” she said.
“The gas drilling is really dependent on the commissioners feeling comfortable with the path forward, so that’s really out of my hands,” she said.
Collier is moving to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia where she will take a position as a senior water-quality adviser. She will be replaced on August 1 by Steven J. Tambini, currently vice president of operations at Pennsylvania American Water.