New Federal Protection for Delaware River Basin but Funding Unclear

Source of drinking water for millions of people gets legal safeguards; it’s not yet clear whether Congress will provide the money to implement them

delaware river (spring)
A new federal law provides extra environmental protection for the Delaware River Basin, but its effectiveness may not match its promise if Congress doesn’t appropriate the funds needed for conservation projects, advocates said.

The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act was signed into law by President Obama on December 19 as part of the wider Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, and follows six years of work by its backers, and several failed attempts to get it through Congress.

The law directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to coordinate the work of federal, state and local agencies; environmental nonprofits; and universities on such areas as water quality, flood control, fish-stock management, and public access to the region that stretches from upstate New York to the Delaware Bay.

Supporters hailed the conclusion of a long legislative battle and said the law will lead to a conservation strategy that will eliminate duplication of effort by the many groups working to protect the basin, which provides drinking water to millions of people in the New York-Philadelphia region.

“Watersheds don’t care about state or municipal boundaries or political parties, so it’s essential that an approach to protecting the resources of the region is able to cross those borders to approach the system as a whole,” said Madeline Urbish, director of the Coalition for the Delaware Watershed, which led advocacy for the law.

But its success will depend on Congress to provide funding that will allow local projects to contribute fully to overall goals, she said.

“Should Congress appropriate funds for the new program, the level of protection for the Delaware River Basin will significantly increase, thanks to the DRBCA,” Urbish said. “However, it will be implemented through a voluntary matching grant and technical assistance program for states, municipalities, and nongovernmental organization to implement on-the-ground projects.” She called on Congress to fund the program so that it can begin as soon as possible.

Local projects that stand to benefit from the new law include one by New Jersey Audubon to plant 1,300 trees and shrubs on a farm in Salem County to filter runoff from an irrigation pond into a tributary of the Delaware River, and provide shelter for wildlife, Urbish said.

Advocates for the law have long argued that the region should be given the same federal protection as other nationally prominent natural areas such as the Chesapeake Bay, which is due to receive $70 million in fiscal year 2017.

Larry Niles, a former biologist for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and now a consultant on Delaware Bay beach restoration, welcomed the new law as a way of providing national recognition to the watershed. “It places the Delaware Bay as one of the country’s most important estuaries and if funding becomes available, it will provide support for many worthwhile and productive projects to help communities and wildlife,” Niles said.

But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the law fails to address what he sees as the most serious threats to the Delaware Basin — the possibility that it will be opened up to fracking for natural gas, and the prospect that new pipelines will be built to bring gas from outside the basin to New Jersey.

“When it comes to the real battles we’re fighting to protect the Delaware River and the basin, this legislation doesn’t do enough to protect the drinking water for 17 million people,” said Tittel, whose group did not campaign for the law.

He warned that Congress might come under pressure from the incoming Trump administration to deny funding for implementation of the new law, and said that the new government may promote the construction of pipelines or call for the end of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s longstanding moratorium on gas drilling in the basin.

Maya Van Rossum, who heads the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, welcomed the new law but said the funding outlook is unclear. “The law should result in more needed funds for protecting our river and hopefully restoring areas in need of help,” she said. “But how much we will actually receive in funding, and how it plays out is, given the current political dynamic, to be seen.”

Clarke Rupert, a spokesman for the DRBC, said the measure will not conflict with the agency’s work of managing water supply in basin portions of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware.

“The creation of the competitive, matching grant and technical assistance program under this new law will help to implement on-the-ground projects that would complement, not compete with, DRBC programs, and further leverage the limited federal resources available to the basin,” Rupert said.