Congressional push on to restore funds for Delaware River Basin regulator

Bipartisan group wants to give Delaware River Basin a higher national priority
Credit: (Michael Dolan from Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Delaware River

The Delaware River Basin Commission could see a restoration in federal funding under a new congressional plan to give a higher national priority to conservation in the region.

The interstate regulator that represents the water interests of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware has been without federal funding for all but two of the last 23 years, despite the U.S. government’s long-standing agreement to pay 20% of the agency’s running costs, or $715,000 a year.

Advocates say the funding shortage makes it harder for the commission to fulfill its role as coordinator of the water resources that supply more than 13 million people with drinking water, especially when increasingly faced with the  floods, droughts, storms and sea-level rise that are driven by climate change.

But a newly created congressional caucus on Delaware River Basin issues will treat funding for the commission as a top priority, according to the National Audubon Society, whose Delaware River Watershed Program is heading the effort.

“DRBC has been very successful in managing water from a volume and flow perspective but it can’t do that with no federal funding forever,” said Beth Brown, Audubon’s program director for the watershed. “We have to get it funded. I think that has to be job number one.”

Bipartisan support group in Congress

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Rep. Antonio Delgado, Democrat of New York, announced the formation of the bipartisan Congressional Delaware River Watershed Caucus to work on issues including water quality and quantity and ecological restoration.

The top issues for the new group will be Delaware River Basin Commission funding as well as obtaining more federal money for a restoration program overseen by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and working with the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, an environmental nonprofit.

Regional conservationists have long complained that the Delaware River Basin, which stretches from upstate New York to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, has received much less federal support for water quality and quantity than other major water systems such as the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.

That began to change with the passage of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act in 2016, which for the first time extended federal protection to the watershed and provided a modest $5 million for conservation.

Funding has since risen to $10 million, and advocates are now hoping the amount will increase to $15 million in the coming fiscal year to support the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program, which is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the 2016 law.

Conservationists hope the new caucus will result in further increases in funding for restoration and other programs, and a higher national profile for a river basin that contributes to the regional economy and ecology.

‘Marquee conservation programs’

“Our new caucus will help advance bipartisan coordination on the marquee conservation programs throughout the Delaware River watershed,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement.

Kate Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the agency understands that the caucus will prioritize an investigation of the long-standing absence of federal funding “but we have no additional specifics about that.”

Of the basin states, only Delaware has paid its full dues, $447,000 a year, to the commission over the last decade. New Jersey, which is responsible for 25% of the agency’s running costs, has been at least $200,000 short of the $893,000 it owes for the last eight years. Pennsylvania, which is supposed to pay the same as New Jersey, has contributed less than a quarter of its dues for the last four years, commission data shows.

Audubon’s Brown said restoration of federal funding would “send a strong signal” to states that aren’t paying their full dues.

She said the new caucus goes beyond the 2016 law by establishing a congressional group to look at the Delaware watershed as a whole.

The funding issue

“That act created a program that is having an impact but in terms of having legislators in the watershed and having a forum to discuss policy and funding needs, it goes beyond the DRBCA,” she said. “It’s all moving in the right direction but to continue that we need to identify where there have been challenges like with the DRBC funding.”

The agency has significantly improved river water quality since the mid-20th century by imposing pollution controls on wastewater plants, but critics including the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network say the job remains unfinished because many plants are still discharging nitrogen-laden waste into the river. The waste depletes dissolved oxygen, an important indicator of river water quality especially during the summer.

Asked whether the caucus would seek funding to clean up nitrogen emissions, Brown said that could be addressed by the Biden administration’s current plans for massive spending on infrastructure.

“There is a tremendous amount of energy right now on infrastructure, and at the heart of the dissolved oxygen issue, it’s an investment in infrastructure,” she said.