How Do You Manage A River?

The answer is you do your best to reduce risk, keep people from harm’s way, and strive for improvements. But all too many times the river wins.

The Delaware River — recently named River of the Year by the national nonprofit American Rivers — is a free-flowing river, which means there are no dams on the main part of the river. So how hard could it be to manage, I thought when I first started as executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission in 1998. It actually is a very managed river and far from free flowing.

scientists walking in water
The Academy fisheries team at work

The Issues

There is nothing static about managing a river system. A river, like all natural systems, is dynamic, always providing you with a new problem to solve. Just when you finalize a management plan for drought conditions, the river will have three years of major floods (2004–2006). Just when you negotiate a contentious flow allocation plan, a new report on ecological flow needs (water needed to sustain the river) or finding an endangered species in need of specific flows and temperatures will send you back to the drawing board.

Just when you think the river’s water quality has improved, new analytical methods allow for lower detection limits and new threats emerge. Man-made chemicals, including bioaccumulative toxics like PCBs and PFAS, or pharmaceuticals and endocrine distrupters, need new study, criteria and reduction plans.

How do we protect portions of a river system that are really pristine with very high water quality potentially threatened by development and energy production? And climate change can exacerbate all these issues, making floods and droughts more extreme and causing problems with water quality and the ecological communities. All these scenarios are happening in the Delaware River watershed.

The Delaware is a relatively small river (330 miles long with a 13,539-square-mile watershed), but with a large responsibility. It contributes $21 billion in economic value annually. Even though it drains only 0.4% of the continental U.S., the watershed provides water for nearly 15 million people (5% of the nation’s population), including half of New York City’s population and all of Philadelphia.

The largest sectors of water demand are potable water and thermal electric power generation. Nearly 6.4 billion gallons of water are withdrawn daily.

A Little History

In order to manage a resource, one needs to learn from past events and use them to better shape the future. The Delaware River is unique because it forms four state boundaries along its course (N.J., N.Y., Pa. and Del.). And there have always been conflicts.

In the 1700s, the four states agreed to ban dams so that logs from the northern forests could be floated down river for use in Philadelphia shipyards. This treaty was challenged in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the interest in building dams for hydropower, but none were built on the main stem.

The biggest rift formed in the early 1900s when New York City, not wanting to use the polluted Hudson for their water supply, proposed two reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains at the headwaters of the Delaware. The other states, led by N.J., sued.

The macroinvertebrate team prepares for a day of collecting samples.

In 1931 the Supreme Court allowed New York City the water it demanded, but said the city had to release a prescribed amount down the Delaware to keep the river flowing through the other states. The case was reopened in 1954 when the city wanted to add a third and larger reservoir. Like New York City, N.J. also has an out-of-basin diversion moving water from the Delaware to the Raritan River system.

The situation became more severe with the largest flood on record in 1955, followed by industrial pollution that left the Delaware between Trenton and Philadelphia essentially dead. The 1960s saw a multi-year drought that left New Yorkers without enough drinking water and Philadelphia’s supply threatened by encroaching salt contamination from Delaware Bay. The river now is managed on a daily basis with flow targets at Montague, N.J./Milford, Pa., and at Trenton, where the non-tidal river ends and the tidal river begins.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy created the Delaware River Basin Commission to manage the Delaware without regard to state boundaries, but on the river’s terms using watershed boundaries. The DRBC consists of the governors of the four basin states, plus a presidential representative, currently a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer.

Today the DRBC has broad powers to plan, develop, conserve, regulate, allocate, and manage water resources in the basin and also to regulate the quality and quantity of surface and groundwater. Despite its broad authority, DRBC sticks to regulations that are best for the watershed as a whole, that cannot be completed by a single state or federal agency.

That doesn’t mean things always go smoothly. In the 1970s the Army Corps wanted to dam the Delaware at Tocks Island, a few miles north of Stroudsburg and the Delaware Water Gap in order to provide flood protection downstream and water supply. Flat Brook in N.J. also was to be dammed. The federal government seized the land by eminant domain, but feelings in the country were changing with the first Earth Day in April 1970. It came down to a vote at the DRBC: Pennsylvania voted for the dam, the federal government abstained, and New Jersey, New York and Delaware voted against it. There still is no dam on the main stem Delaware! (Yay!)

River Management

As you can see, management of a river system is complex due to changing science, community needs and wants, weather events, and politics. It is very important to have a sound base of science, but so many decisions must take other factors into account.

During a severe drought, how does the water get allocated? Does a critical manufacturer get a higher percentage of flow than a farmer with livestock, a hospital or community water supply? How much water should remain in the river at all times to protect the aquatic communities? If you increase “water for the river,” how does that affect existing water withdrawal permits? How do you keep people from harm’s way when more lands may be flooded in the future due to climate change? Land use is controlled by local zoning in individual municipalities (there are 838 municipalities in the Delaware River Basin).

Delaware River issues are not static or consistent and must be addressed in creative ways. The best way is through Integrated Water Resource Management or “One Water” that eliminates the silos and looks holistically at water issues (quality/quantity, upsteam/downstream, surface water/groundwater, water supply/wastewater/stormwater).

The best solutions need time, study and public discourse due to the complex nature of a river system. So how do you manage a river? With much thought, patience and humility.

Hope to see you out on the river soon!

By Carol Collier, Senior Advisor, Watershed Policy and Management


This is the first in a series of posts about the Delaware River, inspired by its being named River of the Year for 2020.

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