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Flow and Drought Management

Water supply shortages and disputes over the apportionment of the basin’s waters were among the primary reasons that led to the creation of the DRBC in 1961. DRBC's first important challenge came with multiple years of drought in the 1960s.

A review of the commission's history demonstrates that the DRBC continually develops and assimilates new information and participants; offers leadership to build knowledge and consensus; and seeks creative, win-win solutions to water resource challenges. Indeed, its use of science, adaptation, and collaboration has realized accomplishments that a static court decree issued more than 60 years ago could not achieve.

Brief History/Overview

The U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954 that settled years of interstate conflict by apportioning the waters of the Delaware River allowed New York City (NYC) to divert up to 800 million gallons per day (mgd), on average, from its three large reservoirs built on headwater tributaries, with the condition that enough water be released into the Delaware to meet a minimum flow objective of 1,750 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Montague, N.J.

The Delaware River Basin Compact creating the DRBC grants the commission broad powers to plan, develop, conserve, regulate, allocate, and manage water resources in the basin. However, the DRBC's power to allocate the waters of the basin is subject to an important limitation: the compact prohibits the commission (comprised of the four basin states and the federal government) from adversely affecting the releases or diversions provided in the 1954 decree without the unanimous consent of the decree parties (four basin states and NYC).

It became obvious from the 1961-1967 "drought of record" that NYC could not withdrawal 800 mgd and still have enough water for the required compensating releases to the Delaware River to meet the Montague minimum flow objective of 1,750 cfs. A new operating regime was needed to manage the NYC Delaware Reservoirs under the new “drought of record” and to address a flow need not recognized by the Supreme Court in 1954 – the need for minimum flows (or “conservation releases”) to sustain aquatic life. There were two choices – resort to further litigation or test the value of the DRBC to develop an equitable solution. Luckily, the latter alternative was chosen.

Negotiations began in 1978 and culminated five years later in the "Good Faith Agreement." Drought management aspects of the 1983 Good Faith Agreement were included in the DRBC regulations known collectively as the Water Code, and conservation releases from the NYC Delaware reservoirs for the protection of fisheries were established in a DRBC docket (D-77-20 CP). The decree parties unanimously consented to each of these instruments – the docket and the regulations.

Three serious main stem Delaware River floods between September 2004 and June 2006 added yet another important management issue for consideration: the potential use of water supply reservoirs to enhance flood mitigation.

The decree parties (with hydrologic modeling and facilitation support provided by DRBC staff) have been engaged in a complex, collaborative effort to balance the multiple, sometimes competing uses of NYC’s water supply reservoirs while recognizing the rights established by the 1954 decree. Additional details can be viewed on the web site of the Office of the Delaware River Master, which administers the provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954.