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The DRBC Turns 60: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Happy 60th DRBC: 1961-2021
White House ceremonial signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact.
White House ceremonial signing of the
Delaware River 
Basin Compact,
Nov. 2, 1961.

It was 60 years ago today, on November 2, 1961, when President John F. Kennedy hosted the four Basin state governors and others in the White House for a ceremonial signing of the Delaware River Basin Compact.

The Compact, which created the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), granted broad basin management authorities to the Commission, including the establishment of water quality standards and regulation of discharges. It became effective just a few days prior, on October 27, 1961.

Kennedy remarked:

"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."

Since its creation, the DRBC has worked with its members and partners in government, academia, NGOs, etc. to manage, protect and improve the water resources of the Delaware River Basin without regard to political boundaries.

Over the years, the DRBC has successfully implemented policies based on sound science to clean up Basin waterways, ensure sustainable water supply and plan for future water needs.

In fact, the tenet you cannot manage what you do not measure is the foundation of our water quality and water planning programs.

One reason the DRBC was formed was to address serious water pollution problems in the Delaware River Estuary, especially near Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington. The pollution was so severe that in the summer and early fall, this section of river was considered a "dead zone," devoid of dissolved oxygen needed for fish and other aquatic life to survive. 

The DRBC got to work right away. In 1967, still several years before the creation of the U.S. EPA & the passage of the Clean Water Act, the DRBC adopted water quality criteria; in 1968, the DRBC adopted regulations to enforce the criteria.

This prompted then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall to say, "Only the Delaware among the nation’s river basins is moving into high gear in its program to combat water pollution."

And, for 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."

These firsts were just the beginning.


A Short Sampling of DRBC Accomplishments

Since 1961, the DRBC connected scientific data and policy to:

Through science, regulation, investment, cooperation and hard work, one of the most polluted waterways in the nation has recovered and is thriving.

Engaging with the Public & Stakeholders
Paddlers on the 2011 Delaware River Sojourn. Photo courtesy of DRBC.
Paddlers on the Delaware River Sojourn.
Photo by DRBC.
Kids learn about aquatic bugs at the 2019 Trenton River Days Fair. Photo by DRBC.
A hands-on lesson on aquatic bugs at the
Trenton River Days Fair. Photo by DRBC.

To quote Sir David Attenborough, "No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced."

The Commission couldn't agree more and has prioritized outreach and education programs to engage and connect people to the river.

Giving people opportunities to connect with and learn about their local waterways will get more people thinking about water and wanting to be good stewards of the resource.

DRBC staff participates in a variety of outreach and education events throughout the year. Whether sharing information about the Basin and Commission programs at community events, in the classroom, at conferences or otherwise with partners and peers, staff recognizes that connecting with our publics and stakeholders is vital to help share information about what we do and why it is important.

One such event is the Delaware River Sojourn. A week-long guided paddling and camping trip on the Delaware River, the Sojourn combines on-water experiences and educational learning opportunities.

Now in its 26th year, the DRBC has participated on the Sojourn Steering Committee, which plans and organizes the annual not-for-profit event, since its early years.

DRBC's Our Shared Waters: A Look at the Delaware River Basin outreach program is a DRBC-managed public outreach effort of multiple Delaware River Basin stakeholder groups. Its main goals are to educate the public and decisionmakers about the Delaware River Basin and the opportunities available to play a role in its continued sustainability and to connect people to their local waterways, connect with one another and connect with the bigger picture – we’re all a part of the Delaware River Basin.

The DRBC also prioritizes public participation; it is a key ingredient in the Commission's decision-making process.

In fact, all DRBC decisions must be made in public after the public has had an opportunity to provide input. Commission meetings are open to the public, including meetings of DRBC advisory committees.

Through the DRBC, people can connect with decision makers and with others in the water resource management field. The DRBC values its partners and stakeholders in government, NGOs, non-profits, academia, business, industry and agriculture.

Ensuring everyone has a chance to participate in the public process connects them to one another and to the bigger picture of basin wide water resource management.

Also valued are its relationships with the regulated community. In 2018, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives State Government Committee held a public hearing to receive testimony from individuals and entities that are regulated by the Commission.

As one water authority summarized and another echoed, "the DRBC is not only essential to our continued operations, but also a critical element in our continued success in satisfying the water needs of our service area."

We also recognize that our work is stronger when diverse voices are included and heard; when every individual is valued and can fulfill their potential in our Basin communities; and when all the Basin's water users share equally in the benefits and stewardship of our shared water resources.

Staff are currently developing a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice strategic plan for the Commission.

What's Next

While much has changed, the "bold venture" that President Kennedy referenced in his 1961 remarks is as important today as it was 60 years ago.

The complex interstate systems that support water resources throughout the Basin still exist and need proper coordination, management and protection.

Pennsylvania Alternate Commissioner R. Timothy Weston summed it up well in his 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.

Being proud of what has been accomplished does not mean there isn't more work to do.

Looking ahead, the mission for the DRBC today is the same as it was in 1961 and in 1986: work across political boundaries to provide water security for the 13.3 million people who depend on an adequate, equitable, sustainable and resilient flow of clean and healthy water.

By having sound science be the basis for policy decisions, as well as understanding the importance of public outreach and participation, the DRBC will continue to work to ensure that the water resources of the Basin are properly managed and protected and that they will continue to be improved, benefiting and supporting all who depend on them.

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