New DRBC Panel to Focus on Sea-Level Rise as Salt Front Threatens Drinking Water

Jon Hurdle | August 13, 2020 | Water, Energy & Environment
Too soon to tell if Delaware River Basin Commission will heed advisory committee, but finding effective solutions to climate change remains beyond abilities of any one agency
Credit: James Loesch from Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Delaware River

An expert panel charged with advising the Delaware River Basin’s top water regulator on how to deal with climate change met for the first time in early August with high hopes but apparently little clear idea of what it will recommend or how its advice may be acted on.

The Delaware River Basin Commission’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change was set up in response to rising concerns about the security of water supplies for the approximately 15 million people who rely on the basin. Driving the decision: the scary combination of bigger floods, droughts, storms and rising seas that have been forecast to come with climate change. Based on the latest evidence, however, they’re already here.

The panel’s first meeting on Aug. 6 took place as Tropical Storm Isaias pounded the region with wind and rain. It came just a week after New Jersey completed a month that, at an average temperature of 78.8 degrees, was the hottest since records began in 1895.

How much power does panel have?

Whether the all-volunteer 18-member panel of government officials, academics and corporate and nonprofit scientists will produce recommendations that protect the basin’s water supplies from the worst effects of climate change was unclear from the first meeting. And even if it advises bold measures, it’s far from assured that the DRBC will reform its regulations in a way that some critics say is necessary to protect water supplies, or even that it will agree to act on the panel’s work — which is purely advisory.

Still, the DRBC is seeking the panel’s advice in the first instance on sea-level rise, which threatens to push salt water into drinking-water intakes for part of South Jersey and Philadelphia in the tidal section of the Delaware River. Although the river’s “salt front” is still well downstream from the intakes, forecasts for 2 feet or more of sea-level rise by the middle of the century are forcing water regulators to take a close look at how the intakes could be protected.

A possible solution is the release of water from a reservoir in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley when the river is low, adding to existing water releases that keep downstream pressure from fresh water on the salt front during low-flow periods, ensuring that salt water stays well away from the intakes.

To make a better decision on how to respond to a rising salt front, the DRBC will be seeking the panel’s advice on the extent of future sea-level rise, given differences between forecasts by academic and other experts, said Kristen Kavanagh, the DRBC’s deputy executive director and its liaison with the new committee.

“We will be asking the committee: Is this the right range of sea-level rise?” she said, in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “It does have a significant effect on the salt front, and that influences flows.”

The ‘challenge’ of finding funding

The DRBC’s ability to act on the panel’s recommendations will be determined by funding, which Kavanagh called “a challenge this year,” and which has been limited since the 1990s by incomplete contributions by some of the four member states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware — and especially by the federal government.

“The formation of the committee did not affect our funding,” Kavanagh said. “But to have all the brain power in one place and to have their willingness to volunteer their time, it’s a think tank to help us think beyond our brain power in terms of what we could be doing.”

The committee is scheduled to meet just twice a year but is considering meeting more often, Kavanagh said.

Committee chairman Howard Neukrug, the former head of Philadelphia Water Department, said his vision for the panel is to take its combined expertise and produce an analysis of how to protect drinking water and prevent flooding in the basin for the rest of the century. “Clearly, the future requires action now,” he said.

As the regional water authority, the DRBC is the right entity to set up a panel on the biggest threat to water supply, but solutions to related problems such as land management go beyond its authority, Neukrug said. For example, some limits on development are likely to be needed to ensure the reuse or conservation of water, and the DRBC has no authority over those. “It’s not something that you can solve just by changing the operations at the reservoir,” he said.

Solutions beyond a single agency

The scale and complexity of the problem means that the DRBC or any other agency can’t find solutions on its own, said Neukrug, who is now the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Water Center at Penn.

“They should be the ones that are leading this, and they should be ones that also recognize that the future is all about leveraging different sources of funding for different ideas for different communities,” he said. “You can’t expect any one agency or any one state to be able to solve all these problems.”

For now, the panel has the right combination of expertise, Neukrug said, but it’s lacking representatives from the poor communities in cities like Camden, Philadelphia and Chester, Pennsylvania, that are disproportionately affected by climate change. Over time, they should be added to the panel, he said.

“At some point where we open our eyes to equity issues and environmental-justice issues, we need to make sure they have the same level of protection as everyone else,” he said.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, urged the panel to advise the DRBC to incorporate climate change into all its regulations. Such a change would require it, for example, to consider the climate impacts of the proposed liquefied-natural-gas terminal, New Jersey’s first, at Gibbstown in Gloucester County, which would load LNG from fracked gas in Pennsylvania onto oceangoing tankers.

He urged the regulator to follow New Jersey’s lead in its current wide-ranging review of regulations under the Protecting Against Climate Threats (NJ PACT) process.

The new climate panel contains impressive expertise, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be in bringing change, O’Malley said. “It’s an acknowledgement that climate change is impacting the Delaware river watershed. The question for the committee members is do they want to just summarize existing research or do to they want to make concrete recommendations on how the DRBC can change its regulatory structure to tackle climate impacts.”

While its methods are unclear for now, the panel must find solutions to the existential problem of climate change, said chairman Neukrug, because the alternatives are dire.

“The bottom line is we have to come to a solution because there really is no choice,” he said. “The other choice is the eventual end of civilization and development as we know it in the Northeast Corridor. We have to solve this, and it’s not going to be all pleasant decisions.”