Despite the Delaware River Basin’s estimated $10 billion annual economic impact on the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region, Delaware River restoration efforts receive limited federal resources compared to similar watersheds across the country. The Delaware River Basin contains 13,539 square miles in the states of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. These four states have entered into a compact establishing the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), which includes the Governors of each of the four states and a federal representative nominated by the President. The Compact's signing in 1961, marked the first time since the nation's birth that the federal government and a group of states joined together as equal partners in a river basin planning, development, and regulatory agency. The DRBC is funded by the signatory parties, project review fees, water use charges, and fines, as well as federal, state, and private grants.
The Delaware River Basin (DRB) has tremendous biological and economic significance to the region. Mammals including bobcat, beaver, bear and fox roam through the watershed. The basin is also home to more than 200 species of birds that spend part of their life cycle in the basin. The watershed allow sturgeon, eel and other species to migrate through the river and the shores of the Delaware River Estuary provide spawning grounds for horseshoe crabs.
The DRB’s $10 billion economic impact in the region includes recreation, water quality, forests, hunting and fishing, agriculture, and parks the basin provides to the Mid-Atlantic region, according to a 2011 study by the University of Delaware. The Delaware Estuary indirectly supports more than 500,000 jobs earning more than $1 billion in annual wages. Although it occupies just 0.2 percent of the continental United States, the Delaware Estuary supplies drinking water to 2 percent of the nation’s population. This includes more than 8 million residents inside the basin, including those living in two of the nation's largest cities: New York and Philadelphia. It also provides drinking water for an additional 8 million people who live outside the basin, all for a total value of $1.3 billion
Despite the DRB’s many environmental and economic benefits, the basin faces a variety of serious and growing threats. Runoff and sedimentation from agricultural, industrial, and residential sources threaten the existence of many native species and their natural communities. Rising sea levels caused by climate change are creating concern that salt water may move up the watershed and contaminate the water supply to Philadelphia. Human consumption also poses a threat to the ecosystem of the DRB, as approximately 50 percent of the watershed’s headwater is diverted to New York City’s municipal water supply system. This change in the river’s natural flow interferes with the survival of freshwater animals like mussels, crayfish, and amphibians, which play a crucial role in the health of the entire river system
Lack of federal and state money has hampered restoration efforts in the Delaware River Basin. Federal funding to the basin was stopped in FY 1997 as part of a House-led effort to cut spending and balance the federal budget. Without federal funding the DRBC is limited in its ability to protect, restore, and maintain the basin’s water supplies. Additionally, three out of the four states in the DRBC are paying less than their agreed share in FY 2015. While Delaware is meeting its funding obligations, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey have decreased their contributions to the DRBC. More than half of the DRBC is supported by other sources including water charges, grants, and project-review fees. Although the DRBC has adjusted to lower funding levels, the lack of sufficient support hinders its ability to properly manage water quality, supply, and conservation. This new status quo could have significant negative consequences for the ecosystem, wildlife and water in the Delaware River Basin.
On April 14, 2015, a bill to fund restoration and protection efforts for the Delaware River Basin was introduced in the House. H.R. 1772 has bi-partisan support (10 Republicans and 7 Democrats) and is sponsored by Representative John Carney (D-DE). The bills 17 cosponsors all represent districts that are in the basin. Through competitive grants to incentivize public-private partnerships and improved coordination among stakeholders, H.R. 1772 would provide much needed funding to improve habitats, protect water quality, and mitigate flood damage. The bill is currently in the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, and will likely not receive attention until other pressing issues are resolved by Congress this fall.
For more information regarding this article contact Michael May at Michael.May@warwickconsultants.net