Milestones

Years before there was an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or a federal Clean Water Act, or even an environmental movement, a little government agency was hard at work restoring life to one of America's most polluted rivers. A pioneer in environmental protection, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) got its start on October 27, 1961, the day the Delaware River Basin Compact became law.

The lower Delaware was an open sewer at the height of World War II. Along some reaches the fouled water was devoid of the oxygen needed to support fish and other aquatic life. A major DRBC goal in its early days was to bring the river back to life.

Chart showing improvement in dissolved oxygen levels in the Delaware River.
The data in this chart were generated from sampling on the Delaware River off Philadelphia during the summer months. It shows that dissolved oxygen (DO) levels have been increasing over the past 35 years, while fecal coliform concentrations have dropped. High levels of fecal coliform indicate the possible presence of harmful bacteria in a water body. When there are too many bacteria in the water, they may overpopulate and use DO in great amounts.
Blazing a new trail in water pollution abatement, the DRBC in 1967 adopted the most comprehensive water quality standards of any interstate river basin in the nation. The standards were tied to an innovative waste load allocation program which factored in the waste assimilative capacity of the tidal Delaware River. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall declared at the time that only the Delaware among the nation's river basins was moving into "high gear" in its pollution abatement efforts.

A year later the DRBC adopted regulations for implementing and enforcing the standards, prompting the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration to observe: "This is the only place in the country where such a procedure is being followed. Hopefully, it will provide a model for other regulatory agencies."

Today, the clean-up of the Delaware is hailed as one of the world's top water quality success stories. The river now supports year-round fish populations. Pleasure craft marinas line waterfronts once visited only by commercial vessels. The river and many of its tributaries are flanked by attractive greenways and parks.

The clean-up of the Delaware and numerous other DRBC accomplishments over four decades are rooted in the Delaware River Basin Compact's chief canon: that the waters and related resources of the Delaware River Basin are regional assets vested with local, state, and national interests for which there is a joint responsibility.

 

A look now at some of the accomplishments and milestones that mark the path of progress since the commission's creation in 1961:

1962 - The DRBC approves its first Comprehensive Plan, which includes a dozen multi-purpose reservoir projects, including Tocks Island, a giant impoundment planned for the Delaware River main stem.

1962 - James F. Wright is appointed as the DRBC's first executive director.

1965 - The DRBC declares a state of water supply emergency and unleashes a fundamental tenet of the Compact -- to settle water disputes through an administrative process. The DRBC's role is pivotal in negotiating successful, out-of-court policy on emergency water allocations.

1966 - The DRBC publishes its Delaware River recreation maps, which instantly become as popular as paddles with canoeists. The maps are updated in 1979, 1991, and 2007.

1968 - The commission sets national precedent in its water pollution abatement campaign, adopting regulations to implement water quality standards for the Delaware Estuary that are tied to an innovative wasteload allocation program.

1971 - Construction of Beltzville Reservoir at the headwaters of the Lehigh River is completed at a cost of $23 million. Releases from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' impoundment (plus releases from Blue Marsh Reservoir, then under construction) help improve stream flows, enhance water quality, and protect fisheries.

1973 - The DRBC adopts a regulation requiring metering of customer connections of new, major water supply systems, kicking off a water conservation campaign years before it becomes fashionable with other agencies.

1975 - In a split vote, DRBC commissioners recommend that Congress not appropriate funds for the construction of the Tocks Island Dam project.

1976 - The DRBC completes flood plain mapping for 119 municipalities, helping them to qualify for federal flood insurance. Flood plain mapping is completed for 32 additional communities in ensuing years.

1977 - Gerald M. Hansler is sworn in as the commission's second executive director.

1977 - DRBC regulations take effect to restrict development in the 100-year flood plain and prohibit development in the floodway.

1978 - Two reaches of the Delaware River totalling over 100 miles are added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. The DRBC helps draft the enabling federal legislation.

1981 - Fred Lewis, who operates the only commercial shad fishery on the non-tidal Delaware River, nets 6,392 shad -- the biggest catch since 1896. The return of this popular game fish is linked directly to water quality improvement.

1981 - The Level B Study, part of a planning process to guide the commission in reformulating its long-range master plan in view of the Tocks Island decision, is released. Water conservation is a keystone of the program, which also recommends enlarging existing reservoirs to bolster water supply storage.

1983 - After four years of intense deliberations, the Interstate Water Management ("Good Faith") Report is approved. It makes mid-course corrections to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decree that apportioned the waters of the Delaware and lays the framework for a drought operating plan. The plan is used successfully during two water supply emergencies in the 1980s.

1985 - The DRBC adopts a basinwide well registration program, an integral component of its rapidly expanding ground water management campaign.

1985 - Construction begins on Merrill Creek Reservoir, designed to provide make-up water for riverbank electric generating plants during low flow conditions on the Delaware. The commission directed in-basin electrical utilities to build the $217 million impoundment or face cutbacks during droughts. It became operational in 1988.

1986 - The commission's water conservation program hits full stride with adoption of regulations requiring the source metering of large water withdrawals. In the next six years the adoption of additional regulations and programs establish the DRBC as an international leader in the water conservation arena.

1987 - Over 56,000 Delaware River shad are landed during a nine-week period between Hancock, N.Y., and Yardley, Pa., generating an estimated $1.6 million in recreational dollars.

1988 - The Delaware Bay and tidal reach of the Delaware River are added to the National Estuary Program, a project set up to protect estuarine systems of national significance.

1989 - A Pennsylvania state record is broken when a 53-pound, 13-ounce striped bass is caught in the Delaware River off Chester, Pa. A year later a New Jersey state record falls when a 38-pound, four-ounce muskellunge is caught in the Delaware River near the Delaware Water Gap.

1992 - The DRBC adopts special regulations to protect the high water quality of the upper and middle Delaware "Scenic River" reaches.

1993 - Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the DRBC completes flood stage forecast mapping for a 65-mile reach of the Delaware River from Belvidere, N.J. downstream to Trenton.

1993 - The Maurice River and several tributaries -- including Menantico and Muskee Creeks and the Manumuskin River -- are added to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

1995 - A DRBC-sponsored project designed to prevent or reduce Delaware River flooding in the Port Jervis, N.Y., area is completed.

1995 - As it has for over three decades, the commission plays host to foreign delegations as part of an informal program to help friends overseas solve water-related problems. Delegations from more than 20 nations have toured the basin and visited the DRBC's offices over the years.

1995 - Over a half million shad swim up the Delaware to spawn.

1996 - The DRBC turns 35 and establishes 23 objectives or goals to be pursued by the commissioners and staff, the result of a "retreat" process to define and develop policy-level strategy for the future.

1996 - The DRBC adopts regulations governing the discharge of toxic pollutants from wastewater treatment plants to the tidal Delaware River. Numerous toxic substances, some carcinogenic, are covered under the new rules.

1998 - Regulations to protect limited ground water resources in heavily populated portions of southeastern Pennsylvania are adopted by the commission.

1998 - Carol R. Collier is sworn in as the commission's third executive director, becoming the first woman to head an interstate-federal compact agency.

1998 - Fish populations in the lower Delaware River and Bay show a sharp increase, due in large part to a significant improvement in water quality.

1999 - The commission amends its Ground Water Protected Area Regulations for Southeastern Pennsylvania, placing withdrawal limits on 62 additional watersheds.

1999 - The four basin state governors - Thomas R. Carper (Del.), Christine Todd Whitman (N.J.), George E. Pataki (N.Y.), and Thomas J. Ridge (Pa.) - sign a resolution directing the commission to develop a new comprehensive Water Resources Plan for the Delaware River Basin. The resolution challenges the basin community to play an active role in drawing up the visionary blueprint for the watershed's future and calls for the establishment of a Watershed Advisory Council to help forge this plan. The Governors' Summit, held on Sept. 29 and attended by Govs. Carper and Whitman, was the second step in the year-long Flowing Toward The Future (pdf 3.3 MB) process that also included a series of workshops held throughout the basin and a watershed-wide conference in Philadelphia.

2000 - "Ed. Web," an on-line resource to help teachers and students learn about the Delaware River Basin and general water issues, is added to the DRBC web site. Since its debut in 1996, the commission's web site continues to attract attention, with "hits" to its home page increasing from about 20,000 in 1997 to over 50,000 in 2000.

2000 - The "Lower Delaware Wild and Scenic Rivers Act" and the "White Clay Creek Wild and Scenic Rivers System Act" are signed into law by President Clinton.

2001 - The DRBC celebrates its 40th birthday.

2001 - The DRBC declares a basinwide drought emergency for only the third time since 1980. By December 15, the combined storage in the three New York City Delaware reservoirs dropped to a record-low level 63.348 bg, or 23.4 percent of capacity. This emergency will remain in effect until November 2002.

2002 - Pennsylvania recognizes the Delaware as the commonwealth's "Feature River of the Year" and creates an attractive poster with the help of DRBC staff using the theme, "The Delaware: A Revolutionary River." The Delaware River Sojourn, chaired by DRBC Executive Director Carol Collier, uses this theme for the annual event.

2003 - Updated Schuylkill River recreation maps prepared by the DRBC in partnership with the Schuylkill River Greenway Association and Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are released for sale to the public.

2003 - The Christina River Basin is selected to receive federal Watershed Initiative funding totaling $1 million to support efforts to preserve and protect this interstate subbasin of the Delaware River Watershed. The Christina Basin Clean Water Partnership, of which the DRBC is a member, was one of only 20 community-based groups (out of 176 applications) receiving federal funding under the $15 million national program.

2003 - The DRBC approves a resolution recognizing and supporting the use of a formal process for developing and evaluating the feasibility of achieving flow targets to address instream flow and freshwater inflow requirements for aquatic ecosystems in the basin. A new subcommittee of the commission's Flow Management Technical Advisory Committee -- known as the Subcommittee on Ecological Flows (SEF) -- will assist in this process.

2003 - On behalf of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, and based on work conducted by the DRBC, U.S. EPA established total maximum daily loads (TMDLs or "pollution budgets") for the tidal Delaware River from Trenton, N.J. downstream to the head of the Delaware Bay near Liston Point, Del. to address the presence of PCBs in the waterway.

2004 - June 7 marked the 50th anniversary of the amended decree of the United States Supreme Court that resolved an interstate dispute over the allocation of water in the Delaware River Basin.

2004 - Elected and environmental leaders from the four basin states and the federal government, along with other interested watershed stakeholders, met on September 13 along Wilmington's Christina Riverfront to celebrate the completion of the Water Resources Plan for the Delaware River Basin. Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner was joined by DRBC Federal Representative Brigadier General Merdith W.B. Temple, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley M. Campbell, and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Water Assistant Director Fred R. Nuffer in a ceremonial signing of a resolution supporting the implementation of the basin plan. A number of federal agency representatives also participated by signing the resolution in affirmation of their agency's support of the basin plan.

2005 - The DRBC unanimously adopted a rule to establish pollutant minimization plan (PMP) requirements for point (end-of-pipe) and non-point (runoff) discharges of PCBs in the Delaware Estuary. This innovative approach embodies the principle of adaptive management, which encourages experimentation, measurement, and readjustment depending on the results of the actions taken. The commissioners also set a goal of reducing PCB loadings by 50% in five years.

2006 - On behalf of Delaware and New Jersey, and based on work conducted by the DRBC, U.S. EPA established a TMDL for PCBs in the Delaware Bay. This TMDL was built upon the TMDLs developed in 2003 for the 85-mile tidal section of the Delaware River.

2006 - The Musconetcong Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law by President Bush adding yet another stretch of a Delaware River tributary to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

2007 - The Delaware River Basin Interstate Flood Mitigation Task Force forwarded to the four basin state governors its action agenda with 45 recommendations for a more proactive, sustainable, and systematic approach to flood damage reduction. The formation of the task force was requested by the governors in late September 2006 following three major main stem floods that took place between September 2004 and June 2006.

2008 - The commissioners permanently designated the 76-mile-long stretch of the Lower Delaware extending from the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area downstream to the head of tide at Trenton as Significant Resource Waters under DRBC's Special Protection Waters (SPW) program. This action, intended to "keeping the clean water clean," expanded coverage of the DRBC's SPW anti-degradation regulations to include the entire 197-mile non-tidal Delaware River from Hancock, N.Y. south to Trenton. The Lower Delaware had been temporarily classified as Significant Resource Waters by DRBC since January 2005.

2008 - The DRBC issues the first State of the Basin Report, which serves as a benchmark of current conditions and provides a platform for measuring and reporting future progress.

2009 - Building upon its previous water conservation program accomplishments, the DRBC revised its Water Code to implement an updated water audit approach to identify and control water loss in the basin. DRBC staff and its Water Management Advisory Committee played an integral role in helping develop the software for implementing the new methodology, which is being used nationwide. The water audit program is currently being utilized by basin purveyors voluntarily; required use will begin in 2012.

2011 - The DRBC celebrates its 50th anniversary.

2011 - The Delaware River was named the Commonwealth of Pa.'s "River of the Year" after a public vote. DRBC staff served as the coordinator for the River of the Year steering committee, which organized numerous events to celebrate this honor, including the 17th Annual Delaware River Sojourn.

2012 - The DRBC debuts a new design for its web site, the first major upgrade since its inception in 1996.

2012 - For their 2012 calendar year audit, DRB water purveyors must utilize the updated water audit approach (approved by DRBC in 2009) to identify and control water loss in the basin. This new approach will improve water supply efficiency and enhance the commission's water conservation program.

2013 - The DRBC launches a new, online reporting system for its water supply charges program.

2013 - The DRBC issues its second State of the Basin Report, which is an abbreviated update to the 2008 report.

2013 - The DRBC publishes two new online interactive maps, one for select docket and permit holder information and one for select water quality monitoring location data.

2013 - The DRBC updates its PCB and pH water quality criteria for the Delaware River and Bay. 

2014 - The DRBC begins to accept online applications for ground and/or surface water withdrawals.

2014 - Steven J. Tambini takes the oath of office as the commission's fourth executive director.