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The Role of the Delaware River Master in Interstate Flow Management
Background and Duties of the River Master

The Catskill Mountain region of the upper Delaware River Basin is approximately 100 miles from the New York City metropolitan area. The Catskill watersheds provide an excellent source of high quality water, and New York City obtains more than half of its water supply from three major reservoirs in the upper Delaware River Basin. Yet the headwaters of the Delaware do not naturally flow to New York City. They drain to Pennsylvania, the state of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, and supply water to much of the Philadelphia metropolitan area and portions of New Jersey. Throughout its entire length, the Delaware provides valuable habitat and is an outstanding recreational resource. These multiple demands have led to intense competition for the waters of the Delaware.

On May 4, 1931, the United States Supreme Court issued a decree authorizing New York City to divert an average of up to 440 million gallons of water per day (mgd) from the Delaware River Basin (the basin) to its water supply system in the Hudson River Basin. The decree was issued to settle the case of the State of New Jersey v. the State of New York and New York City and resolve an interstate dispute over the allocation of water in the Delaware River Basin. The decree required that New York City release sufficient water from its Delaware River Basin reservoirs to maintain a specified flow in the Delaware River at Port Jervis, N.Y.

The 1931 decree was amended on June 7, 1954. The amended decree increased the allowable diversion by New York City to an average of up to 800 million gallons per day from its three Delaware River Basin reservoirs (Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink). This was conditioned on the city releasing enough water from these reservoirs to maintain a basic flow rate of 1,750 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Delaware River at Montague, N.J., commonly referred to as the "streamflow objective" at Montague. The amended decree also authorized the state of New Jersey to divert an average of 100 million gallons per day from the Delaware River Basin to the Raritan River Basin through the Delaware and Raritan Canal (D&R Canal). The amended decree established the chief hydraulic engineer of the U.S. Geological Survey, or that official's designee, as the River Master. The River Master's job is to insure that the provisions of the 1954 decree are met. The daily operations of the River Master are conducted by the Deputy River Master through a field office of the U.S. Geological Survey in Milford, Pennsylvania. The Deputy River Master reports to the River Master, whose office is located in Reston, Virginia.

The River Master has administered the provisions of the amended decree since 1954. The following excerpt from the 1954 decree lists the duties of the River Master. The full text of the decree is posted on the River Master's web site.

1. General Duties.

(a) Administer the provisions of this decree relating to yields, diversions and releases so as to have the provisions of this decree carried out with the greatest possible accuracy;

(b) Conserve the waters in the river, its tributaries and in any reservoirs maintained in the Delaware River watershed by the City of New York or any which may hereafter be developed by any of the other parties hereto;

(c) Compile and correlate all available data on the water needs of the parties hereto;

(d) Check and correlate the pertinent stream flow gagings on the Delaware River and its tributaries;

(e) Observe, record and study the effect of developments on the Delaware River and its tributaries upon water supply and other necessary, proper and desirable uses; and

(f) Make periodic reports to this [Supreme] Court, not less frequently than annually, and send copies thereof to the Governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and to the Mayor of the City of New York.

2. Specific Duties with Respect to the Montague Release Formula. In connection with the releases of water which the City of New York is required to make under Par. III-B-1 (b) of this decree, the River Master, in co-operation with the City of New York, shall, by appropriate observation and estimates, perform the following duties:

(a) Determine the average times of transit of the flow between the release works of the several reservoirs of the City and Montague and between the release works of other storage reservoirs in the watershed and Montague;

(b) Make a daily computation of what the average flow observed on the previous day at Montague would have been, except for that portion previously contributed by releases of the City or as affected by the contributing or withholding of water at other storage reservoirs, for the purpose of computing the volume of water that would have had to be released in order to have maintained precisely the basic rate on that day;

(c) Take account of all changes that can be anticipated in the flow from that portion of the watershed above Montague not under the City's control and allow for the same by making an appropriate adjustment in the computed volume of the daily release; and

(d) After taking into consideration (a), (b) and (c), direct the making of adjusted daily releases designed to maintain the flow at Montague at the applicable minimum basic rate.

In summary, the duties of the River Master include the observation, measurement, correlation, interpretation, and reporting necessary to accurately administer the provisions of the 1954 decree. The River Master provides the technical measures by which the implementation of the decree formula for the drainage area upstream of Montague can be judged. The annual River Master report to the Supreme Court provides a detailed daily accounting of all flows and directed releases used to fulfill the decree requirements.

Item (b) under "General Duties" in the above excerpt from the 1954 decree directs the River Master to conserve the waters of the basin. The River Master's implementation of this item, in addition to coordination with New York City, has included working with upstream hydro-power generators to determine their release schedules. It also has included technical assistance and coordination with the Delaware River Basin Commission's (DRBC) reservoir operations activities. The neutrality of the River Master, as an official of the U.S. Geological Survey, has been an important factor in the administration of the decree provisions.

The Roles of River Master and the DRBC

The Delaware River Basin Compact, which created the DRBC in 1961, provided the commission with authority to modify the diversions and releases of the 1954 decree conditioned on the unanimous consent of the 1954 decree parties. The DRBC has exercised this authority and the decree formulae have been modified on numerous occasions. The most significant of these modifications was the implementation of several of the Good Faith recommendations through DRBC Resolutions 83-13, 84-7, and 88-22 (Revised). These three resolutions comprise the DRBC reservoir drought operating plans which are contained in the DRBC Water Code. These modifications to the decree formulae were prompted by a record drought in the 1960's and were made to conserve storage and ensure flow augmentation during a repetition of such conditions. In addition, Commission Docket D-77-20 CP and a series of revisions to that docket have modified operations by establishing experimental programs for releases to benefit fisheries below the three New York City-Delaware River Basin reservoirs and spill mitigation.

The DRBC reservoir drought operating plans include establishment of a flow target at Trenton, in addition to the Montague flow target. During many dry periods, flow augmentation in addition to that provided by the New York City - Delaware River Basin reservoirs is required to meet the Trenton flow target, which ranges from 2,500 to 3,000 cfs depending on drought conditions. In such cases, releases are made from two U.S. Army Corps of Engineer reservoirs -- Beltzville and Blue Marsh -- in the Lehigh and Schuylkill River Basins, respectively. Releases can and have been made from other basin reservoirs during emergency conditions in accordance with the DRBC drought operating procedures and conservation orders. Water supply storage in Beltzville and Blue Marsh has been financed by surface water users under a water charging program implemented by the DRBC.

In the administration of DRBC operating plans, the DRBC has taken on the responsibility of meeting the Trenton flow target and has received the cooperation of the River Master in this activity. The River Master has continued to be responsible for administration of the decree provisions for the drainage area upstream of Montague, N.J., and any modifications resulting from the DRBC operating plans.

The River Master Advisory Committee

The River Master Advisory Committee was formed by the director of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1954 for the purpose of providing guidance on River Master operations. Members of the advisory committee are representatives of the governors of the states of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and the mayor of New York City. The committee meets annually.

  1. Supreme Court of the United States, Delaware Diversion Case, State of New Jersey v. State of New York and City of New York, Opinion of Justice Holmes, May 4, 1931.
  2.  Supreme Court of the United States, Amended Decree, State of New Jersey v. State of New York and City of New York, June 7, 1954.
  3. U.S. Geological Survey, Office of the Delaware River Master, Internet Website, http://water.usgs.gov/orh/nrwww/odrm/ .
  4. U.S. Geological Survey, Report of the River Master of the Delaware River, U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report, Filed Annually from 1955 to Present.
  5. Delaware River Basin Commission, Delaware River Basin Compact (pdf 263 KB(, Section 3.3, Paragraph a, October 27, 1961.
  6. States of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and New York City, Interstate Water Management Recommendations of the Parties to the U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954 to the Delaware River Basin Commission Pursuant to Commission Resolution 78-20.
  7. Delaware River Basin Commission, Delaware River Basin Water Code (pdf 1.1 MB), December 1996.