Explainer: Safeguarding Water in Four States for 15 Million People

Under stewardship of Delaware River Basin Commission, the river and its tributaries have made a strong comeback -- as annual shad run shows

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What is it? An interstate agency that works to protect the waters of the basin across 13,500 square miles from upstate New York to the Delaware Bay by coordinating the interests and efforts of four states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware — plus the federal government, represented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

How does it do that? By making small-scale decisions on whether individual organizations like utilities can withdraw water from the Delaware River or its tributaries and by taking positions on macro-issues like whether to allow drilling for natural gas in the basin (it didn’t, but that decision isn’t permanent) and whether to seek special federal protection for the river itself (it did, and that was designated in 1992 and again in 2008).

How is it funded? In theory, by the four states and the federal government. However, the federal payments have been mostly absent since 1997, while member states reduced payments or missed them entirely when revenues plunged during the recession.

Is it important? If so, why? Yes, because it oversees protection of water quality in an area that supplies drinking water to some 15 million people who live in the basin, including the population of Philadelphia and some New Yorkers. New Jersey’s portion of the basin covers 40 percent of the state and all or parts of 14 counties that are together home to 1.9 million people, according to the DRBC.

Who runs it? It has 39 full-time staff, and an executive director, Steve Tambini. Its offices are in West Trenton.

Has it succeeded in cleaning up the river and tributaries? Yes, judging by the number of shad that now swim up the river to spawn each spring. Visitors to last weekend’s annual shad festival at Lambertville witnessed the annual migration that — though not as big as naturalists would like to see — has recovered significantly. In 1953, pollution from Philadelphia, Trenton, and Camden had cut the number of shad making it to Lambertville to zero. In the late 19th century, the annual shad migration at Lambertville numbered around 10,000 fish, according to Clarke Rupert, a spokesman for the DRBC.

The agency, along with state and local bodies, campaigned for the construction or upgrade of water-treatment plants that would prevent towns and cities in the basin using the river and its tributaries as a sewer. Now, the river is clean enough to support the annual shad run, and hosts a growing number of indicator species such as the bald eagle, which are able to live and breed on the river because of the fish they are able to catch there.

Can the DRBC regulate the amount of water that flows down the river? Yes, and it does so when necessary. The DRBC pays the federal government $1.2 million a year for the right to release water from two reservoirs on the Pennsylvania side of the basin if the total water flow at Trenton falls below 3,000 cubic feet per second for too long. Boosting the river flow, if needed, is intended to keep the “salt front” — driven by the tides that run as far north as Trenton — from entering freshwater intakes at Philadelphia and Delran, NJ. At the end of April, the salt front was at River Mile 71, some 29 miles south of Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge. The latest reading is four miles further north than is normal for this time of year but is no cause for concern, Rupert said, and is nowhere near its record high at River Mile 102, which was reached in November 1964 during what the DRBC now marks as its “drought of record.”

Whether the agency will have to rely more often on the Pennsylvania reservoirs to boost flow if rising sea levels get closer to the intakes that supply fresh water to millions of people in future is one of the big uncertainties, said Rupert. “That’s one of the main challenges facing us,” he said.

What do environmentalists say about DRBC’s work? On balance, they approve. Maya van Rossum, who heads the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the DRBC is the most powerful regulatory agency that determines the fate of the river and described it as “irreplaceable” even though she does not always agree with its decisions.

“They are uniquely important to our river and our watershed,” said van Rossum, an outspoken environmentalist who does not pull her punches. “There are other watershed-based regulatory agencies but I don’t think any of them have the breadth and power that the DRBC has. When they are stepping up and doing their work, they are very effective.”

The agency has largely succeeded in navigating the interstate politics that it was designed to avoid when it was set up in 1961 in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, van Rossum said.

She cited a fight in the early 2000s over the DRBC’s proposal to get Special Protection Waters status for a stretch of river between the Delaware Water Gap and Washington’s Crossing. The plan was opposed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but that stretch of the river was given the final designation in 2008, showing that the agency was able to overcome political opposition, van Rossum said.

She listed that designation as the DRBC’s finest achievement, followed by its decision in 2010 to place a moratorium on drilling for natural gas in the basin. That move, which has still not become a permanent ban, could have been overturned by a commission vote in 2011, but the vote was canceled at the last minute after Delaware Gov. Jack Markell – in a move that was hailed by the environmental community — said he could not support a move to lift the moratorium until more was learned about the environmental effects of gas drilling. As a result, the DRBC’s moratorium was allowed to stand.

But she argued that the agency “did a great disservice to our river” in its decision not to hold a review on the massive Delaware River deepening project to allow bigger ships to reach river ports, which is now nearing completion.

Whatever the DRBC might have decided if it had conducted a review, it should have considered the expected loss of wetlands and potential damage to species including the Atlantic sturgeon and oysters from the multimillion dollar project, van Rossum said.

Whatever the reservations about DRBC’s record, it’s clear that the river is in much better shape than it was when the agency was set up — an event that preceded the start of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the passage of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the early 1960s there were “dead zones” in the river because of the prevalence of untreated or undertreated sewage being pumped into it, said the DRBC’s Rupert. Thanks to the efforts of the agency and its allies in government and the environmental community, the river and the watershed that feeds it is now able to support a much wider human and animal community.

By the late 1980s, some $1 billion in mostly federal funds had been spent on the construction and improvement of waste-water facilities, Rupert said, and the river began to see the improvement that has now encouraged the shad to return to Lambertville.

“The bottom line is now that the fish have returned,” he said.