DRBC Water Quality Newsletter

December 2012


Years before the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, and state environmental agencies, the Delaware River Basin Commission was working to improve the water quality of the Delaware River and its watershed. The first steps included establishing water quality standards in 1967 and passing water quality regulations in 1968 to enforce those standards. Over the following decades, DRBC worked with its state, federal, local, and non-government partners to implement and advance efforts to clean up the river, which is now heralded as one of the nation's top water quality improvement success stories. 

However, this accomplishment does not mean that the work is over. In some sections of the river, water quality is still in need of improvement, while, in others, water quality is above standards and needs to be maintained at these higher levels.

DRBC staff scientists monitor and collect data to support commission water quality programs. For example, monitoring is conducted to ensure compliance with standards and with Existing Water Quality (EWQ) criteria in Special Protection Waters. It is also undertaken to develop total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) and assimilative capacity determinations, to establish and calibrate water quality models, and to track the salt front for reservoir operations. Additionally, monitoring helps evaluate emerging threats to the water resources of the Delaware River Basin.

This newsletter briefly describes several monitoring efforts completed by commission staff during 2012, as well as provides details on a few water quality-focused reports that were published this year.

DRBC Graphic: Depiction of how, over the years, as bacteria levels decreased, dissolved oxygen levels increased in the Delaware Estuary; this is one indication of improved water quality in these waters. 


Non-Tidal Monitoring (North of Trenton, N.J.)

  • HOBO® Monitors - Concurrent with the drafting of DRBC's Natural Gas Development Regulations, commission staff have been collecting baseline information before gas development commences in the upper basin to better protect the existing high water quality of this region. Six HOBO® loggers were deployed to continuously measure conductivity and temperature in the following locations: the Delaware River at Callicoon, West Branch Lackawaxen, and Equinunk, Oquaga, Shehawken, and Middle Branch Dyberry creeks. Conductivity measures the ability of water to pass an electrical current due to the presence of ions. Each stream tends to have a relatively constant range of conductivity; significant changes in conductivity can indicate the presence of a discharge or other type of pollution in the stream. The HOBO® monitors will provide a better understanding of pre-drilling baseline conductivity ranges over a variety of flows and conditions, including, for example, road salting, and will allow DRBC to better differentiate between conductivity spikes that may arise due to natural gas drilling-related activities versus background conditions. Photo: HOBO® logger deployed to monitor water temperature and conductivity; photo courtesy of Don Hamilton, National Park Service.
  • Didymo Sampling - The invasive, aquatic alga Didymosphenia geminata (aka Didymo, or rock snot) was discovered in the spring of 2012 throughout the non-tidal portion of the Delaware River. While Didymo has been found in the cold, moving waters of the river's east and west branches and sections of the upper mainstem since 2007, this rapid proliferation throughout the entire non-tidal river was alarming because of the alga's potentially detrimental effects on ecosystems and the ease of which it can be transferred from one waterway to another. Once Didymo is found in a body of water, there is no known way to fully eradicate it; containment and education become the main priorities. DRBC staff and scientists from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and the National Park Service (NPS) coordinated sampling efforts to monitor its presence and densities at various locations and the extent of its spread. DRBC's focus was sampling the lower Delaware, or the section of river south of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DEWA) to Trenton, N.J. It was thought that as the Delaware River warmed during late spring and summer, Didymo would begin to die-off throughout most of the river, with the likelihood that it would still exist in the colder temperature regions where it had been found in previous years. As of June 2012, DRBC staff did not observe live Didymo in its samples from the lower Delaware; however, NPS scientists with the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and DEWA continued to find Didymo in samples collected from the mainstem and west branch of the Delaware River throughout the remainder of the summer. Discussions about monitoring during future fall, winter, and spring seasons are currently underway.
  • DRBC Biological Monitoring Program - DRBC's biomonitoring program began in 2001 and is responsible for the development and implementation of methodologies for assessing ecosystem health and biological water quality criteria to support evaluation of Delaware River water quality. Each year, typically during August and September, commission staff collect samples at 25 riffle habitat sites from Hancock, N.Y. to just above the head of tide at Trenton, N.J. Conditions sampled look at the diversity and health of the aquatic life community: benthic macroinvertebrates, benthic periphyton (alga), and habitat characteristics of the Delaware River. Samples are analyzed by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa.; data will be used to create an Index of Biological Integrity, a scientific tool used to identify impacts to the health of biological systems.
  • DRBC/NPS Scenic Rivers Monitoring Program and Lower Delaware Monitoring Program - DRBC and NPS partner in this effort to monitor and manage the water quality in the Special Protection Waters and National Wild and Scenic River segments of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (UPDE), DEWA, and the Lower Delaware Scenic and Recreational River (LDEL). NPS staff lead the monitoring programs in UPDE and DEWA, while commission staff are in charge of the LDEL program. The goals are to assess compliance with water quality criteria and to allow revised definitions of EWQ and/or determine that EWQ is currently being maintained in Special Protection Waters. Throughout the 200-mile non-tidal river, close to 60 sites are sampled between May and September and analyzed for nutrients, dissolved oxygen and other conventional pollutants, solids, bacteria, macroinvertebrates, periphyton (alga), and flow.
  • Water Quality Monitoring in the Neversink Watershed - Funded by the Pinchot Institute's U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities Healthy Forests and Waters Program, this monitoring effort focuses on assessing the relationship between land use types, development, and pollution loadings throughout the entire Neversink River Watershed, a N.Y. tributary to the upper Delaware River. Starting in the spring of 2012, 20 water quality parameters will be evaluated eight times a year at nine locations for three land use types: core forest, fragmented forest, and urban. The data will help evaluate the differences in pollutant loadings from specific land use types and development intensities.
  • Lower Delaware River Metals Sampling - The DRBC's Toxics Advisory Committee has recommended that the DRBC adopt toxics criteria for the non‐tidal Delaware River. In 2012, a project plan was developed for sampling 13 sites for metals and supplemental physical-chemical data; sampling is scheduled for 2013. The resultant data from this monitoring effort will inform a sound technical approach for developing protective and applicable water quality criteria for metals in these non-tidal freshwaters.

Tidal Monitoring (South of Trenton, N.J.)

  • Assessment of Metals in Estuarine Waters - In Zone 5 of the Delaware River, which extends from the Pa.-Del. state line south to Liston Point, copper concentrations continue to be near water quality criteria with several apparent exceedances of the marine criteria in the vicinity of Pea Patch Island, Delaware. In 2012, the DRBC performed additional data collection for copper, zinc, and nickel using enhanced analytical methods and modified collection procedures in this section of the Delaware River. The information collected as part of this study will provide additional data to help determine metals concentrations in ambient water and whether the commission's metal criteria are exceeded. Assessment of metals in the estuarine waters of the Delaware River is complicated by factors such as field sampling techniques and analytical issues with contamination, detection limits associated with routine analytical procedures, the applicability of freshwater or marine criteria, and the influence of other water quality attributes that influence the partitioning and toxicity of metals. Photo: Special Copper Survey - DRBC Geologist Greg Cavallo holds the Niskin sampler and operates a portable pump while Dr. Tom Fikslin holds a filter and fills a sample bottle. This technique is called "Cleans Hands/Dirty Hands" and results in very low contamination of the sample by other metal sources. Photo courtesy of DRBC.
  • Ambient Water Monitoring of the Delaware River for Toxic Pollutants - In 2012, monitoring was done to provide precise and defensible data on the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) concentrations in the Delaware Estuary. Accurate measurements of PCB concentrations are required to support the implementation of the TMDL in DRBC Water Quality Zones 2 - 6, which includes the entire tidal Delaware River and Bay. In addition, monitoring of the estuary's ambient water for pesticides, dioxins/furans, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), all of which have been identified as toxic pollutants of concern, was also undertaken. This effort collected data for comparison of the concentration of targeted pesticides, dioxins/furans, and PAHs in ambient water to current DRBC stream quality objectives.
  • Delaware Estuary Boat Run Monitoring Program - Each year, DRBC contracts with the Delaware Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to collect water samples in the Delaware Estuary, from the head of tide at Trenton, N.J. to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Samples are collected at 22 stations once monthly from April to October. The goals of the program are to provide accurate, precise, and defensible estimates of the surface water quality of the Delaware Estuary and to allow assessment of water quality criteria compliance.  Sample analysis includes routine and bacterial parameters, nutrients, heavy metals, chlorophyll‐a, dissolved silica, and volatile organics. Bacterial sampling results for fecal coliform and enterrococcus are posted on the commission's web site and other data are inputted into U.S. EPA's water quality database, STORET, which is available to the public.
  • Monitoring the Tidal Delaware River for Ambient Toxicity - Monitoring toxicity is an essential component of programs designed to protect water quality and assess compliance with regulatory standards. Based on DRBC's water quality regulations for the estuary, no adverse effects should be observed in toxicity tests with undiluted ambient water. Monitoring in 2012 continued to assess the potential for chronic toxicity in water samples collected from sampling stations in the tidal Delaware River using several freshwater and saltwater test species.

Non-Tidal and Tidal Monitoring

Fish Tissue Monitoring - In 2012, DRBC continued its periodic sampling of tissues of resident fish species in the non-tidal and tidal portions of the mainstem Delaware River. In the non-tidal portion, samples of smallmouth bass and white sucker are collected at three locations. In the tidal portion of the river, samples of channel catfish and white perch are collected at five locations. The samples are analyzed for PCBs, chlorinated pesticides, dioxins/furans, flame retardants (PBDEs), perfluorinated chemicals, mercury, and other metals. These data are used to track the progress of the PCB TMDLs that were established by the U.S. EPA in 2003 and to identify chemical compounds that may pose a risk to human health through fish consumption. These data are also forwarded to state agencies for their use in establishing fish consumption advisories for fish caught in the Delaware River. Map: DRBC's mainstem Delaware River fish tissue monitoring sites; map courtesy of DRBC.


Recent Water Quality Reports

  • 2012 Delaware River and Bay Water Quality Assessment Report (pdf 1.7 MB; March 2012) - Every two years, DRBC compiles the Delaware River and Bay Water Quality Assessment Report, focused on the mainstem river, for the U.S. EPA.  The 2012 report provided an assessment of whether the Delaware River and Bay supported various designated uses during the period from October 1, 2006 through September 30, 2011 by comparing observations to water quality criteria. The uses, which are protected by DRBC regulations and/or the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, are the following: Aquatic Life, Public Water Supply, Recreation, Fish Consumption, and Shellfish Consumption.  
  • Technical Report for the Delaware Estuary and Basin (Spring 2012) - A Partnership for the Delaware Estuary (PDE)-led effort, this report compiled scientific information to provide a comprehensive picture of the status and trends in environmental health of the Delaware Estuary & River Basin. PDE worked closely with DRBC, state and federal agencies, universities, and its 21-member Science and Technical Advisory Committee to gather, analyze, and interpret data for a broad suite of more than 50 indicators that represented different facets of the natural ecosystem. Examples of chapters authored or co-authored by DRBC include Watersheds and Landscapes (Chapter 1), Water Quantity (Chapter 2), Water Quality (Chapter 3), and Aquatic Habitats (Chapter 5).
  • State of the Delaware Estuary 2012 (Summer 2012) - Published as a special issue of PDE's Estuary News newsletter, this is a public-friendly companion piece to the scientific Technical Report for the Delaware Estuary and Basin (see above).
  • Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Tidal Delaware River: Pilot Monitoring Survey 2007-2009 (pdf 1.5 MB; July 2012) - This report, authored by Dr. Ron MacGillivray, DRBC Environmental Toxicologist, consolidated the monitoring completed from 2007-2009 to determine the presence and concentration of select contaminants of emerging concern in the ambient waters of the Delaware Estuary. Contaminants of emerging concern include pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), hormones, flame retardants (PBDEs), detergents, flame repellents/non-stick surface coatings (PFASs), and plasticizers (bis-phenol A).  
  • Delaware River Basin Wild and Scenic River Values (September 2012) - This report is the product of a Spring 2012 workshop organized by the National Park Service with a purpose of defining the outstandingly remarkable values of the four National Wild and Scenic River Units along the Delaware River: the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, the Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River (within the Delaware Water Gap), the Lower Delaware National Wild and Scenic River, and the Musconetcong National Wild and Scenic River. Outstandingly remarkable values are defined by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act as the characteristics that make a river worthy of special protection (such as water quality), and this document helps demonstrate how these four units are connected but also have unique, individual qualities.

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