At a special meeting Wednesday, the Delaware River Basin Commission issued a special permit for coordinated operation of regional reservoirs, out-of-basin diversions, and Delaware River flow objectives in response to persistent dry conditions.
“The special permit unanimously approved today provides for enhanced coordination of operations of regional reservoirs, diversions, and flow objectives during the ongoing, extended period of below-normal precipitation,” said DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini. “Today’s action also makes clear that the entire basin is currently deemed to be in a ‘drought watch’ stage.”
The DRBC’s primary drought management objective, which complements the basin states’ drought response efforts, is to provide for conservation of regional reservoir storage for purposes of water supply and flow augmentation in the Delaware River and salinity control in the Delaware River Estuary.
The special permit issued under section 10.4 of the compact that created the DRBC in 1961 provides a single set of water resource management responses to address dry conditions both “basinwide” and in the “lower basin,” which is the portion of the basin downstream of Montague, N.J.
Under the special permit, the transition from one possible drought stage to another – from “watch” to “warning” to “drought” and back again to “normal” – will be based on the combined storage in three reservoirs located in the Catskill Mountains at the headwaters of the Delaware River in New York State.
Releases from these New York City reservoirs provide about half of the city’s water supply and support a minimum flow target in the Delaware River at Montague established by the U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954.
Combined storage in the three reservoirs is now approximately 40 percent of capacity.
In accordance with the provisions of the compact, the resolution has also been unanimously approved by the parties to the decree, which include Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York State, and New York City.
Out-of-basin diversions to New York City and portions of New Jersey established by the 1954 decree will be reduced depending upon the drought stages defined by the special permit.
However, a reserve “bank” of water established by the decree parties over the course of the past year in anticipation of a dry period such as the current one will be available, allowing New Jersey to minimize the effects of possible diversion reductions.
The Delaware River flow objective at Montague and a second flow objective at Trenton, N.J. will also be reduced and will be dependent on the location of the “salt line” in the Delaware River Estuary if the basin enters into the most serious “drought” stage of operations.
The purpose of the Trenton flow objective is to control the movement of the “salt line” or “salt front” in the tidal Delaware River. Adequate freshwater flowing downstream is needed to repel the upstream advancement of “salty” or “brackish” water from Delaware Bay to keep it away from drinking water intakes serving residents in Philadelphia and New Jersey and industrial intakes along the river.
“As of November 20, the salt front is 19 river miles upstream from its normal location for the month despite significant freshwater reservoir releases,” said Tambini. “The current salt front location is still 21 miles downstream of water supply intakes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.”
Under the “drought watch” stage operations initiated today, several hydroelectric, recreation, and federal reservoirs may be requested to either store or release water.
In addition, releases may be required from Merrill Creek Reservoir, a facility in Warren County, N.J. constructed by a consortium of electric utilities, to replace evaporative losses caused by power generation.
The DRBC held a public hearing on November 9 to solicit public input on the persistent dry conditions throughout the basin and how to address them, as required by the compact before being able to take action at Wednesday’s meeting.
The below-normal precipitation totals throughout most of the Delaware River Basin, with the resulting effects on streamflows, groundwater levels, reservoir storage, and soil moisture, have prompted New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York to declare drought watches or warnings under their respective drought operating plans in 36 of the 42 counties that lie entirely or partially in the basin.
The DRBC is urging all water users to fully cooperate with requests by the basin states to curb water use where drought watches and warnings have been issued and is encouraging all basin water users to maximize water efficiency wherever possible.
“Over 15 million people rely on waters of the Delaware River Basin,” said Tambini. “During times of shortage, they also rely upon coordinated action by the basin states, decree parties, and federal government jointly through the DRBC to meet the basin’s drought management objectives.”
A copy of the resolution adopted Thursday is available online. A Frequently Asked Question about DRBC Drought Management is also available.
DEP declared Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe and Northampton counties in drought warning status on November 2. New Jersey declared 14 counties in drought warning status on October 21.For information, including water saving tips, are also available on DRBC’s Drought Information webpage.
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