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DRBC: Drought Emergency Looms

For Immediate Release

January 5, 1999

(WEST TRENTON, N.J.) - The Delaware River Basin Commission declared a conditional drought emergency today to address a prolonged water shortage, brought on by a dogged dry spell that has carried over into the new year.

The emergency automatically will kick in if declining storage in three huge water supply reservoirs drops into a "drought zone" and remains there for five consecutive days. It is projected that this could occur near the end of the month.

The Commission took the action here following a public hearing, that is required by law as a preface to any drought emergency declaration.

It adopted conservation orders which will be activated if the dry weather persists and worsening hydrologic conditions trigger the emergency.

Two of the orders call for the marshalling of water supplies in state, federal, and power company reservoirs in order to conserve storage and coordinate releases from the impoundments to help bolster streamflows.

A third order calls for major, self-supplied water users in the basin to prepare drought contingency plans for water curtailment, should it become necessary, and submit them to the Commission.

The fourth conservation order restricts non-essential water use in the basin, including:

  • the watering of lawns, gardens, landscaped areas, trees, shrubs or other outdoor plants except commercially grown food crops and sod, and nursery stock at nurseries or retail outlets;
  • the use of water for washing paved surfaces such as streets, roads, sidewalks, driveways, garages, parking areas, tennis courts, and patios;
  • watering any portion of golf courses except for tees and greens;
  • the use of water for ornamental purposes, including fountains, artificial water falls, and reflecting pools;
  • the washing of non-emergency vehicles except by businesses engaged exclusively in car washing;
  • the use of water from a fire hydrant for any purpose (including the use of sprinkler caps) except for fire fighting, or health protection purposes;
  • the use of water for flushing sewers or hydrants except as deemed necessary in the interest of public health and safety;
  • the serving of water in restaurants, clubs, or eating places unless specifically requested by a customer.

The drought declaration, if effected, also would trigger further reductions in water diversions from the basin to New York City and New Jersey.

The DRBC's drought plan is tied to the storage in three reservoirs in the Catskill Mountain region of New York State.

In a normal year, combined storage in those impoundments would be increasing during the late fall and winter months. In a healthy hydrologic cycle, the reservoirs would be spilling by late spring.

Last year, however, storage fell by 77.6 billion gallons from October 1 through December 31 and is continuing to decline.

Flows in the Delaware River and tributary streams also have been far below normal going back to mid-July. In the Delaware, flows, as recorded at Trenton during November and December, averaged 2,936 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to normal flows for that two-month span of 10,752 cfs.

A first stage drought warning was triggered in the Delaware River Basin on December 14 as storage in the three Catskill Mountain impoundments, which are owned by New York City, dipped to unseasonably low levels.

New York, which lies outside the basin, draws roughly half its water via aqueducts from its three reservoirs - Pepacton, Neversink and Cannonsville. These impoundments account for about 75 percent of the total surface water storage in the basin.

New Jersey diverts water out of the Delaware Basin, or watershed, through the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which feeds off the Delaware River north of Trenton and joins the Raritan River near New Brunswick.

Under an agreement reached with New York City on November 21, the first conservation measures kicked in: diversions from the city's reservoirs were reduced by 15 percent and releases from the reservoirs into the Delaware River also were throttled back.

Under normal hydrologic conditions, New York can withdraw up to 800 million gallons a day (mgd) from the reservoirs. In return, it must release sufficient water into the Delaware to meet a downstream flow target of 1,750 cfs at Montague, N.J., located just downstream of Port Jervis, N.Y. In addition, the DRBC directs releases from two lower basin reservoirs to maintain a flow target of 3,000 cfs at Trenton.

Under the November 21 agreement with the city, the flow targets were reduced to 1,655 cfs at Montague and 2,700 cfs at Trenton, and New York's authorized take from its reservoirs was cut to 680 mgd.

When the basin entered the first stage of drought warning on December 14, the water diversion from the Delaware River to northern New Jersey through the D&R Canal was reduced from 100 mgd to 85 mgd.

A second stage drought warning kicked in on December 23 and the diversions were further reduced: New York City dropped from 680 mgd to 560 mgd; New Jersey from 85 mgd to 70 mgd; and the Montague streamflow target was lowered from 1,655 cfs to 1,550 cfs.

Today's drought emergency declaration, if activated by declining reservoir storage, would trigger further reductions: New York City's allowable take would fall to 520 mgd; New Jersey to 65 mgd; the Montague flow target to 1,350 cfs; and the Trenton target to 2,500 cfs.

The lack of rain that began in mid-July has not only impacted reservoir storage and streamflows, but has caused significant decreases in ground water levels throughout the basin, which drains portions of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.

A precipitation deficit of over eight inches exists in the upper basin (above Montague) going back to July 1. In the Philadelphia region, the deficit for the same period is around 12 inches.

With water supplies deteriorating, the Commission continues its call for wise use of water by the basin's 7.3 million citizens. It is asking residents to voluntarily curb non-essential water use, offering these water saving tips:

  • take shorter showers;
  • run dish washers and washing machines only when full;
  • don't let the water run when shaving or brushing your teeth;
  • repair leaks (A leaking toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water a day.);
  • take your vehicle to a car wash that recycles its water.

The DRBC's drought operating plan focuses on the use of reservoir releases to control salinity intrusion - the upstream migration of salty water from the Delaware Bay during low-flow conditions in basin rivers and streams.

The salt-laced water, known in water jargon as the "salt front," is defined as the seven-day average 250 milligram per liter chloride concentration. Since August 1 of last year the salty water has moved 15 miles upstream and now is located at River Mile 85, about three miles upstream of Chester, Pa., and about 14 miles above its average location for this time of year.

As the front moves upriver it increases corrosion control costs for surface water users, particularly industry, and has the potential of raising sodium levels in a large aquifer underlying southern New Jersey which is used for municipal water supply. The aquifer is recharged in part by the river.

In recent dry years, salty water also has migrated into streams and creeks in Delaware, threatening water supplies in northern New Castle County.

The conditional action taken by the Commission today applies to all areas within the basin with the exception of Cumberland and Cape May counties in New Jersey, and the area below the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in Delaware. These portions of the basin are exempted because their water usage has little or no impact on salinity intrusion.

The DRBC's drought operating plan, as previously noted, is tied to the combined storage levels in the three New York City reservoirs. As of today, combined storage was 98 billion gallons or 36 percent of the reservoirs' 271 billion gallon capacity. Normal storage for this time of year is 193 billion gallons or 71 percent of capacity.

The basin has now entered into drought emergency four times, including the record drought of the 1960s. In 1981, a drought emergency kicked in on January 15 of that year, and in 1985 a drought emergency was declared on May 13.

In addition to releases from the three New York City reservoirs, close to five billion gallons of water have been evacuated since last summer from Beltzville Reservoir on the Lehigh River and Blue Marsh Reservoir on the Schuylkill River to improve flows, enhance water quality, and protect fisheries.

And, with drought conditions persisting, a consortium of seven electric utilities in the basin are required, when flows drop below 3,000 cfs at Trenton, to direct releases from Merrill Creek Reservoir to make up for evaporative losses at their riverbank generating stations. To date, 666 million gallons of water have been released into the Delaware from the 16-billion gallon impoundment, located near Phillipsburg, N.J.

Drought conditions also are being experienced elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Ridge declared a drought emergency on December 16 for 12 counties located west of the Delaware River Basin. Another 52 counties were under a drought warning and three under a drought watch.

In New Jersey, seven northern tier counties were placed under a drought warning on December 14.

The drought plans in the four basin states were adopted in 1983 at the direction of the DRBC as part of its newly established water conservation program, which recognized the need to reduce the demand side of water supply during water shortages.

While the DRBC's plan applies only to the basin and is tied solely to storage in the New York City reservoirs and at times to the location of the "salt front," the state plans have multiple drought triggers -- incorporating the Commission's operating procedures as they relate to reservoir levels, and looking at additional parameters like precipitation deficits, streamflows, and ground water levels.

The DRBC is responsible for managing the water resources in the 13,539 square-mile basin, which stretches some 330 miles from the Delaware River's headwaters in New York State to the mouth of the Delaware Bay.

The commissioners are the governors of the four basin states and a federal representative appointed by the President.

The following counties in Pennsylvania fall entirely within the Delaware River Basin:

Bucks, Delaware, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, and Pike.

Pennsylvania counties that fall partially within the basin: Berks (99%), Carbon (99%), Chester (80%), Lackawanna (9%), Lancaster (1%), Lebanon (5%), Luzerne (10%), Schuylkill (43%), and Wayne (96%).

The following New Jersey counties fall entirely within the basin: Cumberland, Salem and Warren.

Those partially in the basin: Atlantic (4%), Burlington (55%), Camden (50%), Cape May (33%), Gloucester (83%), Hunterdon (35%), Mercer (70%), Monmouth (25%), Morris (13%), Ocean (20%), and Sussex (67%).

There are no counties in New York State or Delaware that are completely in the basin.

New York counties partially in the basin: Broome (2%), Chenango (1%), Delaware (85%), Greene (2%), Orange (15%), Schoharie (1%), Sullivan (95%), and Ulster (15%).

Delaware counties partially in the basin: Kent (65%), New Castle (90%), and Sussex (20%).


Resolution 1999-1 Declaring Conditional Drought Emergency (pdf 50 KB)

Resolution 1999-2 Conservation Order Number One (pdf 45 KB)

Resolution 1999-3 Conservation Order Number Two (pdf 45 KB)

Resolution 1999-4 Conservation Order Number Three (pdf 43 KB)

Resolution 1999-5 Conservation Order Number Four (pdf 44 KB)


Editors and News Directors: visit the Commission's "Drought Center" on its web site (www.state.nj.us/drbc/) for daily updates on drought conditions and other drought related material.

Features include: 

  • water saving tips;
  • streamflow and reservoir storage figures with graphs depicting the storage in relationship to the DRBC's drought triggers. (The data are upgraded daily and the graphs can be downloaded and used as fresh illustrations for newspaper and TV copy.);
  • monthly hydrologic summary reports;
  • basin state drought links;
  • precipitation data;
  • descriptions of the DRBC's drought warning and drought emergency operating criteria;
  • DRBC drought news releases;
  • a list of the communities located within the basin, a valuable tool to use in localizing your stories.