This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC). The long history of the Commission has been defined by managing, protecting, and improving water resources of the Delaware River Basin to achieve measurable and impactful results. Before the DRBC, major water pollution issues plagued the lower Delaware River Basin, water diversions and interstate water rights caused persistent conflicts and major flooding plagued the river valleys. The path ahead was uncertain.
President John F. Kennedy and the four Basin state governors knew the challenging task at hand when they created the DRBC in 1961 with the passage of the Delaware River Basin Compact. President Kennedy believed in its members and their ability to succeed, remarking:
Today’s formal signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact is a significant event…. We are glad to join with Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in this bold venture. The task set for the Commission will not be easy to achieve, but we are confident that the cooperation that has brought forth this Compact will endure, and that working together real progress can be made for the people of the Basin.
As required by the Delaware River Basin Compact, which is federal law and law in each basin state, the DRBC quickly developed a comprehensive plan for the management of the Basin’s shared water resources. In 1967 the DRBC established interstate water quality standards with the force of law, initiating the cleanup of severe pollution in the urban Estuary. The DRBC’s early plans included new flood control reservoirs to address persistent flooding. DRBC management of the allocation of waters and the Compact’s provisions that allow for adaptive management of flows have eliminated Supreme Court conflicts between states for water use.
This “bold venture,” this experiment of shared water resources governance launched 60 years ago, focused on interstate planning, science, engineering and management- has worked. It is based upon the principle that together the four Basin states and the federal government can achieve for the Basin’s water resources what each cannot achieve individually.
The DRBC has provided for the water security for over 13 million people in four states by: improving and protecting water quality; ensuring water availability for all the diverse water users in the Basin; planning and adapting to ensure resiliency and address the challenges of extreme weather, extreme flows and climate change; and addressing water equity for the diverse communities that rely on the waters of the Basin.
To learn more about our rich history, I invite you to check out our 60th anniversary timeline.
While I can blog about the great work of DRBC for pages and pages, I’ve gathered a sampling of the comments that special people have made to capture the history and contributions of this special agency over the years:
To mark our 60th Anniversary in 2021,U.S. Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (DE), joined with other members of the Basin-state Congressional Delegation to recognize the contributions of DRBC both past and present, remarking, “For six decades, the Commission has carefully balanced the economic and environmental needs of the public, setting a model for the nation and the world on how to manage a vital, common resource.”
U.S. Representative Antonio Delgado (NY-19), co-founder of the Congressional Delaware River Watershed Caucus (with U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of PA) works toward conservation efforts in the basin and is dedicated to “this ecological gem and economic driver.” He wrote that he “look(s) forward to continuing to work with the DRBC on our shared goals, and congratulate[s] the Commission on 60 years of outstanding work.”
U.S. Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) said, “This profound coming together of the federal government and state governments as equal partners in signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact was a first in our nation’s history… I thank the Delaware River Basin Commission for their work and congratulate them on their 60th Anniversary.”
U.S. Representative Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-1) wrote, “The Delaware River Basin Commission’s efficient and beneficial public service is admirable, and this year, as it celebrates its 60th anniversary, we express our appreciation for the impact that it has had on our environment and natural habitats, our region, and our local communities.”
In 1996, during a speech commemorating the DRBC’s 35th anniversary, former Delaware Governor Tom Carper, then Commission chair, noted, “The Commission, which pioneered the concept of partnerships, has the tools through its organizational structure to oversee a unified approach to the development and control of the river system without regard to political boundaries.”
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge also extended anniversary greetings, observing, “Our great Commonwealth was founded by the spirit of community and will continue to grow and prosper as we look to dedicated organizations, such as yours, for guidance, information, and protection. Your efforts to promote interstate comity and to remove the causes of controversy among the stares in the uses of water resources are unquestionably worthy of honor.”
Former Pennsylvania Alternate Commissioner R. Timothy Weston summed it up well in remarks at DRBC’s 25th Anniversary Celebration in 1986:
Today…the Delaware River Basin stands as the prime example of interstate cooperation and commitment to dynamic, regional water resources management. Long before there was an EPA or a Federal Clean Water Act, or even an environmental movement, this Commission tackled the challenge of bringing back a dead river – fouled by decades of neglect and pollution. In adopting and enforcing the nation’s first binding, regional water quality standards, this Commission did not – as one critic suggested – engage in an ‘uncertain search for environmental quality.’ In the face of those who said it couldn’t be done – that economic welfare and environmental wellbeing were incompatible – the Commission acted on a different vision and belief: that we could do better.
And back in 1967, still several years before the creation of the U.S. EPA and the passage of the Clean Water Act, the DRBC adopted the first water quality criteria for the river, prompting former Interior Department Secretary Stewart Udall to comment, "Only the Delaware among the nation’s river basins is moving into high gear in its program to combat water pollution."
We as a Basin community are fortunate that DRBC leaders, staff and Commissioners over the past 60 years have provided the foundation and have built the pillars of basin-scale water resource management that will serve the DRBC as we address the challenges of the future.
Legacy pollutants and emerging contaminants continue to threaten water quality, especially in historically overburdened communities in the urban Estuary. The climate will continue to change and challenge the water cycle with more frequent and severe floods, droughts and sea level rise. The ways in which we use our lands requires management that supports the long-term health of our watersheds.
As we have in the past, through collaboration, science and a watershed-based approach, we are committed to building upon the great history of the DRBC and will continue to provide significant and measurable solutions to ensure water security for the Delaware River Basin.
Steve Tambini is the Executive Director of the Delaware River Basin Commission.