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Special Protection Waters (SPW) Program
Program Overview
Brief Description of SPW Regulations
DRBC/NPS Scenic Rivers Monitoring Program and Lower Delaware Monitoring Program
Program History
Program Overview

The SPW program, initially adopted by the DRBC in 1992 and expanded in 1994 and 2008 (see below for detailed history), is designed to prevent degradation in streams and rivers where existing water quality is better than the established water quality standards through stricter control of wastewater discharges and reporting requirements. Currently, the entire 197-mile non-tidal Delaware River from Hancock, N.Y. to Trenton, N.J. is considered Special Protection Waters, three-quarters of which is also included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. 

The program states that there will be no measurable change in existing water quality (EWQ) of SPW waters except towards natural conditions. This is accomplished by taking a watershed approach, looking also at the drainage area of the designated waters, and by regulating both point and non-point source discharges. It allows new or expanded pollutant loadings as long as they do not measurably change the existing water quality and considers the cumulative impacts of these loadings, rather than just looking at them individually.

DRBC believes that these regulations establish an anti-degradation policy on the longest stretch of any river in the nation. Ensuring that the level of water quality in SPW is not degrading over time is the ultimate goal of the program: to keep water quality above existing standards, or, simply, to keep the clean water clean.

Brief Description of SPW Regulations
Overview of SPW Drainage Area.

Within the drainage area to Special Protection Waters (shaded gray in the map on the left), DRBC approval is required for new and expanding industrial and municipal wastewater treatment plants when the proposed facility is designed to discharge a daily average rate of 10,000 gallons a day or more during any consecutive 30-day period. In the rest of the basin, the review threshold remains 50,000 gallons a day or more during any consecutive 30-day period.

The regulations discourage new and increased discharges of wastewater directly to the designated waterways by prohibiting new wastewater treatment facilities and substantial alterations and additions to existing facilities discharging directly to Special Protection Waters unless all non-discharge/load reduction alternatives have been fully evaluated and rejected because of technical and/or financial infeasibility.

In addition, new discharges and substantial alterations and additions to existing discharges are prohibited within the drainage area to waters classified as SPW unless natural treatment alternatives for all or a portion of the discharge have been evaluated and rejected because of technical and/or financial infeasibility. Non-discharge alternatives and natural treatment alternatives include land applications like spray irrigation where treated wastewater is applied to the ground.

To obtain DRBC approval, new discharges and substantial alterations and additions to existing discharges within the drainage area to waters classified as SPW must demonstrate no measurable change to existing water quality as defined by the regulations for a list of seven or eight parameters (depending on the location of the discharge) at established water quality control points.

The SPW regulations further require that the minimal level of wastewater treatment for all new discharges and substantial additions or alterations to existing discharges directly to Special Protection Waters will be “Best Demonstrable Technology.” Best Demonstrable Technology is defined for municipal facilities by 30-day average effluent criteria for seven parameters plus ultraviolet light disinfection. Equivalent criteria for industrial facilities are identified on a case-by-case basis.

Projects located in the drainage area of Special Protection Waters that are subject to DRBC review must also have a Non-Point Source Pollution Control Plan (NPSPCP) that has been approved by the commission. The NPSPCP describes the Best Management Practices that will be used at the project site and service area to control the increases in non-point source pollutant loadings resulting from the project.

SPW regulations are unique in that they require monitoring to determine if measurable change is occurring at designated interstate and boundary control points where existing water quality has been defined. This monitoring program is conducted through an informal partnership between the National Park Service (NPS) and the DRBC called the Scenic Rivers Monitoring Program (see next section). Data collected are also used in computer models developed for priority tributaries, i.e. those that have a high number of existing discharges or are expected to have new growth and associated wastewater discharge needs. The models are used to predict possible changes to water quality and to establish discharge limits to prevent a measurable change.

DRBC/NPS Scenic Rivers Monitoring Program and Lower Delaware Monitoring Program

DRBC and the National Park Service (NPS) partner in this effort to monitor and manage the water quality in the Special Protection Waters and National Wild and Scenic River segments of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (UPDE), Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DEWA), and the Lower Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (LDEL). All of these river segments are considered to have exceptionally high scenic, recreational, ecological, and/or water supply values.

NPS staff lead the monitoring programs in UPDE and DEWA, while commission staff are in charge of the LDEL program. The goals are to assess compliance with water quality criteria and to allow revised definitions of EWQ and/or determine that EWQ is currently being maintained in Special Protection Waters.  In August 2016, the DRBC released its Lower Delaware River Special Protection Waters Assessment of Measurable Changes to Existing Water Quality, Round 1: Baseline EWQ (2000-2004) vs. Post-EWQ (2009-2011) report.

Throughout the 197-mile non-tidal river, close to 60 sites are sampled between May and September and analyzed for nutrients, dissolved oxygen and other conventional pollutants, solids, bacteria, macroinvertebrates, periphyton (alga), and flow. Samples are taken from the main stem river and also at tributary confluences and are analyzed by academic institutions or state laboratories.

Program History

In 1992, DRBC adopted SPW regulations for point source (or "end-of-pipe") discharges, which were amended in 1994 to also include non-point source pollutant loadings carried by runoff. The regulations were enacted to protect existing high water quality in areas of the Delaware River Basin deemed "to have exceptionally high scenic, recreational, ecological and/or water supply values." They initially applied to a 121-mile stretch of the Delaware River from Hancock, N.Y. downstream to the Delaware Water Gap, and its drainage area. This includes the upper and middle sections of the non-tidal river federally designated as "Wild and Scenic" in 1978, as well as an eight-mile reach between Millrift and Milford, Pa., which is not federally designated.

In 2000, federal legislation was enacted adding key segments of the Lower Delaware and selected tributaries to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. This designation was followed in April 2001 with a petition from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network to classify the Lower Delaware, the 76-mile stretch of the non-tidal river between the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and the head of tide at Trenton, N.J., as SPW. Extensive data were collected from 2000 through 2004 which confirmed that existing water quality in this stretch of river exceeded most state and federal standards.

In 2005, based in part upon these findings, the DRBC temporarily classified the Lower Delaware as SPW. This temporary designation made the Lower Delaware subject to all SPW regulations except those that required the use of numeric values for existing water quality. Temporary designation provided a measure of protection while allowing time for the public rulemaking process to take place and for implementation details to be thoroughly considered.

The commission extended the temporary designation on four different occasions:

On July 16, 2008, by unanimous vote, the DRBC permanently designated the Lower Delaware as Significant Resource Waters, one of the two available SPW classifications.