DRBC in Funding Shortfall from Three States and Federal Government

Jon Hurdle | July 1, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Interstate water regulator says it isn’t getting the necessary funds to plan for climate change

Delaware River Basin
The Delaware River Basin Commission faces another year of short funding after New Jersey and two other basin states finalized their fiscal year 2020 budgets without meeting their full funding share, and the White House proposed to continue its longstanding policy of no federal funding for the agency. The states’ shortfall alone is more than $1.1 million.

The shortfall is the latest to deprive the agency of some of the funding that it was promised more than 30 years ago, and which has not always materialized, especially from the federal government. The DRBC oversees water quality and supply in the watershed.

The new funding totals follow a “proclamation” the governors — all Democrats — of the four basin states signed in May vowing to work together to protect the river’s natural resources. But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the proclamation is “not worth the paper it’s written on,” since it’s not backed by any extra money.

In the fiscal year that starts on Monday, the DRBC will have to make do with $200,000 less from New Jersey than it agreed to pay in 1988 when the state committed to “fair-share” funding, along with the three other basin states plus the federal government.

New Jersey’s final FY2020 budget contains $693,000 to fund the DRBC, the same it has paid for the last six years but $200,000 less than it contributed in 2013 when the state last paid its full dues. It’s possible that the shortfall will be made up by supplemental funding bills introduced by Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) and Sen. Bob Andrzejczak (D-Cape May), but the Legislature is not expected to consider them until the lame-duck session after the November elections.

Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy, foreground, and the governors of Pennsylvania and Delaware signed a proclamation last month saying they would protect the Delaware River Basin.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, which proposed the new funding level, said the number reflected the pressure of other budget priorities, and urged the federal government to step up.

“After years of underfunding across the board, we have many needs we are trying to meet with limited revenues,” said Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for Murphy, who ended a 12-month term as DRBC chairman June 30. “Governor Murphy supports the $693,000 he proposed this year, but the important work of natural resource preservation needs federal funding support, as well.”

Restoration of funding would be significant

Advocates for increased DRBC funding said the New Jersey shortfall is a holdover from a cut former Gov. Chris Christie made in 2014, and argued that the deficit, though modest in comparison with the overall budget, is significant for the DRBC, which has only 33 full-time staff.

“This funding, small as it is, matters a lot to the DRBC because they have a lot on their plate,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. Restoration of funding would, for example, allow the agency to hire the staff it needs to make the case for a full ban on fracking-related activities in the basin, he said.

He urged the administration to support the supplemental funding bills and said full funding by the states would strengthen their argument that the federal government should resume its own payments to the agency.

In Pennsylvania and New York, newly agreed budgets for the year starting July 1 contain DRBC funding that is further behind their agreed levels than New Jersey’s. Pennsylvania will pay only $217,000 for the coming year, matching last year’s contribution but totaling only about a quarter of its scheduled $893,000. New York will pay $359,500, the same as last year but only 57 percent of its full dues.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, did not respond to a question on why the state continues to short-change the DRBC.

Once again, the only state that will meet its full payment in the coming year is Delaware, which will pay $447,000, or 12.5 percent of the agency’s $1.7 million budget.

The biggest shortfall comes from the federal government, which is supposed to provide 20 percent of the funding, but has made no contribution since 1998 except for two years when it made partial payments, according to DRBC data.

Federal pullback led to state cuts

The federal government stopped paying its DRBC funding in the late 1990s in response to campaigns for federal spending cuts by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in addition to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said Carol Collier, the DRBC’s former executive director.

The federal pullback has since prompted the three basin states to cut their own funding for the agency, Collier said.

“It was very frustrating because the feds are supposed to pay 20 percent and when they stopped paying, the states said, ‘Why should we pay the full share?’” she said. “It was just a slippery slope.”

The Trump administration proposed zero funding for the DRBC in its budget for FY2020, starting in October.

Still, the basin has been receiving some federal money as a result of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act, a 2016 law that directs the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to coordinate the efforts of local conservation groups. Advocates say the initiative, which provided $5 million in its first year, begins to give the Delaware basin the federal protection that other major rivers and bays like the Chesapeake have enjoyed for years.

Environmentalists argue that it’s essential to protect the Delaware Basin because it supplies drinking water to some 15 million people in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

The DRBC, which was set up in 1961 to coordinate the water interests of the basin states and the federal government, says the funding shortfall forces it to curtail its operations and stops it making plans for the major changes to water supply that are expected to come with climate change.

“The continued lack of sustainable funding … will adversely affect DRBC science, regulatory and planning programs for managing, protecting and improving the water resources of the Delaware River Basin at a time when the Commission and region face serious water resources challenges,” the agency said in a statement. “Among these challenges are the need to examine and plan for the effects of climate change on droughts, floods, water quality and sea level.”

Investing in DRBC’s shared services

Collier said states should recognize the value of DRBC’s shared services, and fully fund it.

“By funding the DRBC, the cost of any work on the shared waters, such as studies, strategic plans, monitoring and modeling is borne collectively by all states. It’s like getting immediate match funding,” she wrote in an email.

Collier, now a senior watershed adviser with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, rejected an argument that DRBC shouldn’t be fully funded because it doesn’t do on-the-ground studies, saying that it provides baseline scientific analyses that states and nonprofits can use to make their work more effective.

“The Delaware River system is incredibly important to the wellbeing of citizens and the economy,” she said. “It is worth the investment.”