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Flow and Drought Management

The Delaware River and its tributaries provide water for many different purposes, for example, drinking and industrial water supply, power generation, water quality maintenance, ecosystem services, fishing, boating and recreation.

While there is no dam on the mainstem Delaware River, there are reservoirs on its tribuatries that are used for a variety of purposes: water supply, flood mitigation, recreation, or a combination of the above. In terms of water supply, water is stored in reservoirs and can be released during periods of low flow, providing some assurance of flow levels in the river. 

To better understand potential future issues related to river flows and water supply demands, DRBC staff are performing modeling and other analyses, in particular to examine how climate change and sea level rise will impact flows and salinity in the basin. The adequacy of current flow management programs is being addressed, as well as that of drought management plans and water availability.

Planning for future water needs will be coordinated with the decree parties and basin stakeholders, as applicable.  


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.

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. The Delaware River Basin Compact that created 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).

DRBC's first important challenge came with multiple years of drought in the 1960s. 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 Recommendations. Drought management aspects of the 1983 Good Faith Recommendations 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.

In addition, the drought management program adopted by the commission in 1983 created a Trenton Flow Objective of 3,000 cfs that DRBC is responsible for meeting through releases from two reservoirs in Pennsylvania. This flow objective is intended to ensure that enough freshwater flows into the estuary to repel the salt front, protecting drinking water and industrial intakes in the Delaware Estuary around Philadelphia and Camden.

The mainstem Delaware River is also susceptible to flooding. 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 expertise 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.

The most recent flow management program was approved by the decree parties in October 2017. 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. DRBC issued a press release recognizing the October 2017 approval; see DRBC Supports the Decree Parties’ 10-Year Extension of the Flexible Flow Management Program.

DRBC staff continue to work closely with the decree parties on flow management in the basin. 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.