DRBC intensifies its focus on climate change

Matamoras, Pa., on the Delaware. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE DC
Matamoras, Pa., on the Delaware. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

The Delaware River Basin Commission plans to create a Climate Change Advisory Committee to intensify and unify the study of impacts of climate change on the Delaware River Basin.

"It's timely to address issues of climate change," said DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini, acknowledging that there are a variety of opinions on the topic but he hoped those could be put aside and that this work would be based on science.

In the resolution, there's a long quote from the Third National Climate Assessment:

Water cycles constantly from the atmosphere to the land and the oceans (through precipitation and runoff) and back to the atmosphere (through evaporation and the release of water from plant leaves), setting the stage for all life to exist. The water cycle is dynamic and naturally variable, and societies and ecosystems are accustomed to functioning within this variability. However, climate change is altering the water cycle in multiple ways over different time scales and geographic areas, presenting unfamiliar risks and opportunities.

That full report is here.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful," said Tambini, "for all the (natural) resources of the basin to take advantage of the knowledge base of the basin, especially those with direct connection to the basin?

"With climate change, people expect more intense storms, more flash floods, more intense heat, more, more, more of everything," said Tambini. That may or may not be the case for the basin. The point of the committee is to get the best information and understand what the potential impact of climate change will be right here.

The DRBC has been studying the effects of climate change on the basin as part of its 2060 Water Resources Planning Study but the direction of that work springs from the overarching mission of the DRBC, achieving a sustainable water supply, which means ample clean water for all the users of Delaware river water.

So the 2060 work covers all the variables: Population changes, overall water demands, increasing development, the ever-present threat of floods and drought and then layered on top is climate change.

Amy Shallcross, the DRBC's manager of Water Resource Operations, has been working with models of the hydrology of the basin and partnering with others like the United States Geological Survey to understand patterns of land use, temperature and precipitation with a focus on the water systems of the basin. There could be other impacts, for example on seasonality, which could impact the growing season. But the DRBC is focused on the water system.

"The news for us as it seems from the work done so far is somewhat anti-climatic," said Shallcross.

FromTheSourcesquare DC

"There will, of course, continue to be instances of drought and floods possibly worse than what we have experienced in the past. However, the long-term outlook for the intensity of those events is unclear," she said.

"No question climate issues will affect the water cycle," said Tambini, pointing to the uniqueness of the Delaware -- it's open to the ocean, it's undammed, and the there's the challenge of managing salinity, the creep of the ocean's salt up the river.

The traditional way to push back against that salt front has been with the fresh water flow from upriver reservoirs including the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs in Pennsylvania and New York City's reservoirs in the Catskills.

As the ocean rises and increases its intrusion into the estuary, that may not work as well.
Which is likely one of the reasons that two agencies deeply knowledgeable and affected by this dynamic are members of the proposed committee: the Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Water Supply, New York City Department of Environmental Protection and the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department.

"DEP is happy to participate on this advisory committee and share our scientific data on climate change," DEP Deputy Commissioner Paul Rush said. "We know that warming weather, changing patterns of precipitation, and other factors related to climate change will affect the future state of New York City's reservoirs and waterbodies throughout the Delaware River Basin. Everyone benefits when we gather the best scientific information, examine those data together, and plan for the consequences of climate change."

Since one of the best ways to anticipate local effects of climate change is to build and study models, it's interesting to note that both New York City and Philadelphia are doing exactly that.

The way the advisory committees are typically set up is that there are reserved members -- members who don't change. For this committee that includes the two officials just mentioned and representatives of the four states as well as two representatives from the United States government.

"Those representatives," said Tambini, "could be the Corps (the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, who sit on the DRBC as the representative of the federal government); the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency); NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) or the national parks (the  U.S. National Park Service

Whichever is eventually named, Tambini said he hoped they would do what the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers does -- be a link among all the agencies that have an interest in the Delaware Basin.

Rounding out the nine reserved memberships are the executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. The PDE is the host of the Delaware Estuary Program, one of 28 designated National Estuary Programs with specific responsibilities to this estuary as overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We're happy that the DRBC is taking a leadership role coordinating a basin-wide approach to our understanding of the wide array of potential issues arising from climate change," said Kathy Klein, executive director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

The rest of the committee includes non-reserved members. The resolution describes them as coming from four stakeholder categories:

1. academic or research institutions;

2. environmental or watershed organizations;

3. businesses or industries; and

4. water or wastewater utilities.

Here's the full text of the resolution

The resolution is on the agenda for the DRBC's public hearing session set for Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019 at 1:30 p.m. at the Washington Crossing Historic Park Visitor Center, 112 River Road, Washington Crossing, Pa.

The resolution is open for public comment. Here's that process -- as well as the agenda for the Nov. 13th meeting.

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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