DRBC continues to be underfunded in demanding times
Editorial Report

In this season of presidential debates, we can paraphrase then-Gov. Ronald Reagan to say, "Here we go again."

Once again, only one of the five members that make up the Delaware River Basin Commission has contributed its full promised share of funding for the agency that they created in 1961.

As usual, it's Delaware,

Here's the historic breakdown:


So, the DRBC is doing its work -- responsibility for the quality of the water in the main stem as well as the quantity (think floods and droughts) -- with half the funding that the parties that created it promised. Remember, the commission is the four governors (NY, Pa. NJ, Del) with a representative of the federal government -- the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

So there's the decrease, and there's a lack of stability with money from the states going up and down as the political winds blow.

"The signatory parties' funding needs to be stable and sustainable," said Elba Deck, the DRBC's director of finance and administration, explaining that the DRBC does seek grants, which are project-specific and though they help, they don't really balance the books.

In addition, pursuing that money eats into staff time, which might be better spent developing the scientific goals of the commission. Though again, even the science will sometimes have a hard time withstanding the political goals of the commission members.

In the past four years, the shortfall from Pennsylvania  each year -- $676,000 -- has almost matched the shortfall from the feds. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, requests more from the Pennsylvania Legislature but doesn't get it, likely because Republicans, who control the Legislature, are not happy with what they perceive as the DRBC's anti-fracking stand. And that's despite the fact that the DRBC -- to the dismay of environmentalists -- hasn't issued a yea or nay on fracking in the watershed. It only issued proposed regulations that could be adopted, or denied, at some future meeting. That decision has been abeyance for 10 years, since the DRBC asserted its authority to review fracking in the watershed and began the process of developing regulations.

Basically, instead of getting an annual pay raise, the DRBC gets decrease after decrease. All the while demands on its staff -- mostly scientists and engineers -- increase.

What about fracking? What about climate change? What about the salt front? What about flooding? What about sturgeon, dwarf wedge mussels, and oh, trout?

All the states are responsible for what happens in their own waters, but all have delegated authority over the main stem to the DRBC.

The federal government, represented on the commission by the USACE, is clearly the biggest defaulter, owing $16,445,050 over 23 years. That's a lot of new equipment, new staff, new studies.

One of the more significant ironies of this situation is that while the USACE owes the DRBC that $715,000 every year and hasn't paid it, the DRBC owes the USACE a total of $1,511,000 every year, and the DRBC pays it.

The payment is demanded by the legalities of the DRBC buying space for water storage in the two USACE reservoirs (Beltzville and Blue Marsh).  The DRBC has use of them to store water that might be needed in the lower basin: $861,000 for P&I (Principal and Interest) and about $650,000 for O&M (Operations and Maintenance) each year.

Deck -- the person who, with DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini -- is responsible for finding ways to fill the gap left by funding shortfalls understands why someone might be mystified.

She explained, with an air of frustration, that the DRBC has explored ways to not pay that bill, but there would be legal ramifications that are hard to overlook.

There are always moves afoot to try and get those federal dollars. There has been a push to create a Delaware River Congressional Caucus, nothing so far has happened on that front.

U.S.Rep Antonio Delgado (D-NY-17) recently reiterated his support for a Delaware River Congressional Caucus.

One more U.S. representative has come out in favor of a Delaware River Congressional Caucus.

At the Friends of the Upper Delaware Water, Water Everywhere forum, held Oct. 14, 2020, guest speaker U.S. Rep Matt Cartwright (D-Pa. 8) was enthusiastic about forming a caucus.

This year, there's also been a push from the DRBC for a more encompassing caucus, a Mid-Atlantic Congressional Caucus,  to join with the other river basins that are begging for federal dollars: the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

Interest from congressional representatives? Nothing definite.

There's also a  move afoot to take the funding mechanism away from the Department of the Army (though local membership on the commission will still be with the USACE) and have the money come instead from the Environmental Protection Agency.

That's part of America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2020, which has passed the Senate, but the transfer to EPA wasn't in the House version so a separate bill -- HR 7705 -- awaits passage in the House. The situation is still in flux.

And, of course, what happens to Congress Nov. 3 could have an effect on the negotiations.

These are the U.S. representatives who have co-sponsored that simple bill. 

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, (R-PA-1); Rep. Susan Wild (D-PA-7); Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ-12); Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ-5); Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE-At Large); Rep. Dwight Evans (D-PA-3); Rep Tom Malinowski (D-PA-3).


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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