DRBC’s Climate Change Committee weighs risks in the near- and far-term.

"Stretch our imagination," Nick Procopio said, and it might be a motto for the Advisory Committee on Climate Change. (The cool kids are calling it AC3 --the Advisory Committee on Climate Change.)

Procopio is the Bureau Chief of the Division of Science and Research at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and one of the members of the Delaware River Basin Commission's new climate change committee, which met on Dec. 17, 2020, and is still figuring out first steps. As DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini phrased it the meeting was spent "finding your lane."

Its work will be complicated and, likely, never-ending. Projections that push out our planning to 2060, 2100 aren't an end, as many committee members noted, since the climate will continue to change, though projections become less reliable the further out you go.

But the thing that Procopio was saying referred to our somewhat limited human desire to plot out the next 30 years or so -- the average life, say, of a mortgage.

He said we have to be planning for a longer term than that -- for roads and bridges, hospitals and wastewater treatment facilities.

And what about the many contaminated sites near the river that are prone to flooding? David Velinsky, head of the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science at the Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University, also a committee member, asked whether there have been conversations with Philadelphia about Philadelphia Energy Solutions?

The refinery there exploded on June 21, 2019, leading to the closure of the site. The site is in an area that is likely to be flooded, with all of its contaminants leaching into those waters.

Chris Linn, manager of the Office of Environmental Planning for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and a member of the committee, said there weren't any that he knew of, but there have been conversations about the risk to Philadelphia Airport and the Navy Yard.

In his presentation, Linn talked about the DVRPC's story map: Coastal Effects of Climate Change in Southeastern PA. It covers flooding scenarios, chronic inundation, infrastructure risk, property value risk, and information on a community rating system that considers ways to lower the cost of flood insurance.

View Presentation: Coastal Effects of Climate Change in Southeastern PA

Cost was never far from the committee's considerations.

Alan Cohn, the Managing Director of Integrated Water Management for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and a committee member, asked: "How do you convince people to pay more money on their water bill to pay for resources needed in 2100?"

Amy Shallcross, manager of the Water Resources Operations at the DRBC, agreed. "We need to be prepared but not over-prepared. It could cost so much it'll put us out of business."

Shallcross isn't a member of the committee -- no one from DRBC is -- but was present to talk about a subject related to the problems of flooding, but less discussed: Drought.

As sea-level rise continues, the water system of the Delaware River watershed will change. A significant impact is likely to be diminishing fresh water coming from the upper river (and the New York City reservoirs that feed the Delaware).

Speaking of the New York City water system, an idea that might be termed out of lane (judging from the raised eyebrows) came from Committee Chairman Howard Neukrug, Founding Director of The Water Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He suggested revisiting the whole New York City water supply system with an eye to seeing what the Catskill system might be able to do for the Delaware.

Tambini quickly responded, "That would be a Supreme Court discussion," referring to one of the foundation documents that guides how New York City feeds the Delaware River, a Supreme Court decree in 1954 that stipulated certain minimum flows at Montague, N.J. Neukrug's idea went nowhere, at least at this meeting.

The changes in the river's complicated water system can mean trouble for the salt-line where ocean salty water meets and mingles with fresh water. Salt is bad news for the drinking water intakes on the Delaware as well as for industries like Kimberly Clark in Chester County, Pa., and the power companies that are the river's biggest users of water to cool their plants.

And yet more trouble for the salt line -- and communities grappling with flooding -- is the increased volume of the river, as noted by Danielle Kreeger, the senior science director for the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary.

"As sea levels increase, the bay widens and the volume of the water system increases. It already has increased," she said. "Tidal range changes at Cape May are currently microscopic. Near Trenton, very much macro -- about 10 feet."

What seemed to be welcomed at this meeting for its members was an understanding that a community's or a state's tolerance for risk was key in conversations about planning for sea-level rise.

"What do you do with all this information?" asked Neukrug. "Allowing for different levels of risk tolerance is good to hear."

The final test for most of the work that is ahead will be the public's understanding of the risks, and acceptance of the need to plan for them, said Julia Rockwell, manager of Climate Change Adaptation, Office of Watersheds, Philadelphia Water Department.

Tambini suggested that near-term goals for the committee should be not just the exploration of fresh-water flows and sea-level rise, but the sharing of knowledge among all the members, and also the larger community.

To that end the DRBC, will be hosting a Forum on Climate Change in the Delaware River Basin as part of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary's biennial Science and Environmental Summit. The summit is scheduled for March 1-3, 2021, and the AC3's forum will be on March 2.

For more info: www.delawareestuary.org

This meeting of the Climate Advisory Committee was not recorded. In a few days, slides from each of the speakers will be available on the DRBC's website. More info, as well as the agenda for the meeting and all the presenters, here: www.state.nj.us

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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