How you can help the Delaware River get $5 million from Congress

Note: Much of the intelligence about this bill and its legislative process comes from conversations with Madeline Urbish, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, and her colleague at the coalition, Madeline Emde, conservation associate.

IN WHAT SOME REGARD as a notoriously dysfunctional Congress, a bright light of bipartisanship is shining from House and Senate fans of the Delaware River.

If those fans can gather support from their colleagues, the watershed could see a $5 million infusion of federal funds to protect and improve the Delaware. Actually since the act calls for matching funds from other sources, it could mean $10 million for the Delaware.

The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act has been approved in the Senate, but there are a few hurdles before that money finds its way to the basin. Many of the representatives whose districts border the Delaware have signed on to the coalition. But many more will need to vote "Yes" (or actually "Yea") for the bill to move forward.

So if you, too, are a fan of the Delaware River and if you can shift your focus from one of the crazier presidential elections in U.S. history, you might help make a little history for the Delaware if you ask the people vying for your vote where they stand on this bill. With all the talk about the role money plays in our political system, well-informed voters can still make a difference.

This is especially true for our water resources.

Super Storm Sandy brought the realities of climate change and the need for community resilience vividly to life in our part of the world. A little further afield, the repercussions of tainted water in Flint, Mich., have awakened us to the value of quality drinking water.

"We're taking the politics out of water," said Collin O'Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation in his speech at the Delaware River Watershed Conference in September.

That's a profound possibility that this action in Washington, D.C. highlights.

The DRBCA was introduced back in 2009 by then-Congressman Michael Castle (R. Del. At-Large District). The bill has survived re-introduction several times, but it has always garnered bi-partisan support.

His successor, U.S. Rep. John Carney is a Democrat, who's now running for governor of Delaware, and he's the primary House sponsor of this bill in the 114th Congress. His counterpart in the U.S. Senate is Sen.Tom Carper (D-DE). (See congressional coalitions from the Senate and House below.)

But before we dive into the details of the road ahead for this bill to become law, a little more about the bill itself. The DRBCA would establish the Delaware River Basin Restoration Program in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That program would set up a two step process of, first, developing a plan that all of the USFWS partners in the basin would help prepare, and then create a system of matching grants that would put that plan into action.

The targets for the money would range widely from water quality improvements, to habitat restoration and protection; flood mitigation; planning to enhance resilience; public access and recreation. The list goes on — but what the money would actually be spent on will be the result of the first step on a plan that would address the urgent needs of the basin.

With a wish list as long as this (and there's more) it seems $5 million (or 10 if you include the matching grant dollars) won't go very far. But its supporters point out that — as the Coalition wrote in its guide to the Watershed Forum, "The DRBCA would clearly affirm the Delaware River Watershed is a national priority, worthy of the attention and resources given to other major watersheds across the country."

That's a big deal as you can see from this graphic.

This table illustrates the funding levels for specific, federal geographic programs. The Delaware River Watershed does not have a federal program; such a program would be established by the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act. The table does not include other federal funding sources that benefit the Delaware River Watershed and other regions such as the National Estuaries Program. COURTESY OF THE COALITION FOR THE DELAWARE RIVER WATERSHED

There is federal money in the basin through various programs, but this act would propel the Delaware River onto the main stage. Our nearest estuarial neighbor, the Chesapeake Bay, got $75 million in 2016. There's something of a thread here that could remind you of Rodney Dangerfield's comic line: "I don't get no respect."

This bill would change that.

Now, how can that happen?

Our civics text books back in school gave us a comparatively simple pathway for a bill to become law.  Certainly we remember that both houses of Congress have to pass a bill. But the bill they pass has to be the same to make it to the president's desk to sign.

In this case, they are not.

In the Senate, the DRBCA  has been included in the Water Resources Development Act.

In the House version of the Water Resources Development Act, there's no DRBCA.

Since both chambers have passed their own versions of that Act, the differences need to be reconciled. Congressional leadership appoints a conference committee (you've heard of those) who negotiate to come up with a bill that will be the same in both the House and the Senate.

"Fans" of the Delaware River — legislators and advocates — are hoping that the DRBCA will be in the version of the Water Resources Development Act that makes it out of the conference committee. That's what makes this moment crucial.

That "new" bill makes a reappearance on the floor of both houses and needs to be approved by both houses in order to get out of Congress and sally forth for the president's signature.

This has to happen quickly for all this work to bear fruit before the end of this Congressional session, which is Jan. 3, 2017. That's the end of the 114th Congressional session and on the same date the 115th session begins. The unapproved bills go back to the starting line.

I know you don't want another layer of complication, but even if all of this magically happens before Jan. 3 — including the president's signature — this bill just sets the framework for the allocation of funds. The first step in a two-step process.

The second step is a killer: appropriations. Congress still has to appropriate the money. And what to call the appropriations process these days? A quagmire, a battleground? Whatever it is, the bill has to pass muster to get the money to the basin.

So, we're back to the beginning and how necessary it is for supporters of the bill and the recognition it implies to raise it in conversations with election hopefuls. While support from voters in the watershed is crucial, you might want to reach out to others— friends, family, legislators — in the four-state area to build a deeper understanding about the crucial role the Delaware River plays in our water supply. Know anyone in New York City?

The following is a list of the people who have put their shoulder to the wheel to get the bill this far. Likely an "Attaboy (or girl)" would be appreciated in this election season.

These are the senators who helped get the bill (S. 921) passed in the Senate:

  • Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) primary sponsor
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
  • Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)
  • Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)
  • Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
  • Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)

Here are the Representatives who are the coalition that supports the bill (H.R. 1772):

  • Rep. John Carney (D-DE-At Large) primary sponsor
  • Rep. Bob Brady (D-PA-1)
  • Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA-13)
  • Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA-17)
  • Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA-6)
  • Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA-15)
  • Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA-8)
  • Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ-11)
  • Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY-19)
  • Rep. Leonard Lance (R-NJ-7)
  • Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ-2)
  • Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ-3)
  • Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY-18)
  • Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA-7)
  • Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ-1)
  • Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ-4)
  • Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ-12)

The Delaware River Basin Commission has a useful map to find out what district you live in.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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