Wolf’s budget would restore bulk of funding for Delaware River Basin Commission

  • Susan Phillips
A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

Kim Paynter / WHYY

A view of the Delaware River from Morrisville, Pa.

In a reverse from the previous administration’s budget, Governor Tom Wolf’s proposed plan would restore much of Pennsylvania’s share of funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission. Former governor Tom Corbett had slashed in half Pennsylvania’s contribution to the multi-state commission in last year’s budget. Corbett cut the DRBC’s funding while maintaining funds to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Some speculated that the move was retribution for the DRBC’s continued moratorium on natural gas drilling in Pike and Wayne counties, which lie within the commission’s jurisdiction. Corbett was unsuccessful in convincing other members of the DRBC to lift the moratorium on gas drilling in the basin.

Wolf’s budget proposal includes $750,000 for the DRBC, a 73 percent increase over last year’s funding.

“We welcomed the news because it means we’re heading in the right direction from what we experienced the previous year,” DRBC spokesman Clarke Rupert told StateImpact. “But that’s still subject to the legislature.”

The Delaware River Basin Commission oversees water quality for the length of the Delaware river, and until New York Gov. Cuomo’s decision to ban fracking, the DRBC stood as one of the most cautious regulatory bodies when it comes to shale gas drilling. It’s governed by a compact signed back in 1961 by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the federal government to protect the drinking water supplies for millions of residents of those states dependent on the river.

The five signatories made a tacit agreement in 1988 to contribute their “fair share.” Pennsylvania and New Jersey agreed to contribute 25 percent of the budget. Neither New Jersey or Pennsylvania’s state budget would fully fund its share, which is $893,000 a piece. New York has also recently fallen short of its contribution, which is 17.5 percent. Delaware consistently pays 12.5 percent, while the federal government agreed to a 20 percent share.

A thorn in the fiscal side of the DRBC is the federal government’s continued failure to pay. Through the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government has contributed only once since 1996, when the DRBC, along with the SRBC and the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, became victims of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” a Republican led effort to reduce the size of government.

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River. Opposition to drilling within the Delaware River basin is strong, and led to a stalemate among commissioners.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A drilling protest sign sits on the lawn of a home along the Delaware River. Opposition to drilling within the Delaware River basin is strong, and led to a stalemate among commissioners.

Delaware, which in recent years has been the most consistent supporter of the DRBC both with funding and policy decisions, has led the effort to include the DRBC in the President’s budget. But Obama did not include money for the DRBC, or any river basin commission, in his latest proposal.

Delaware Senators Tom Carper and Chris Coons, both Democrats, did manage to add language to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014, which forces the Secretary of the Army to give an explanation as to why the funding was not allocated. The DRBC’s Rupert says so far, there’s been no explanation.

In the meantime, Rupert says the commission continues to be hamstrung by lack of funding.

“We’re not doing important planning activiites we would like to do,” said Rupert. “We need to be looking at our water supply decades into the future. We are responsible for half of the water supply to New York City. It’s not a sustainable position that we’re in.”

About 16 million people drink water from the Delaware River. Maya van Rossum, with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network says the restored funding is an important leadership step by Governor Wolf.

“In recent years Pennsylvania has been outright hostile toward the DRBC,” said van Rossum. “And that’s not just within the Corbett administration. In the Rendell administration we saw a level of opposition to efforts that would have strengthened protection for the Delaware River. [Wolf’s budget] is really a good sign for other members of the compact. And hopefully it will inspire the other states, and the federal government to restore their commitment to the DRBC.”

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