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DRBC Approves Resolution to Review Aquatic Life Uses in Delaware River Estuary in Recognition of Improved Water Quality

For Immediate Release

September 21, 2017

(WEST TRENTON, N.J.) – The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) at its Sept. 13 quarterly public business meeting approved a resolution recognizing the significant water quality improvements in the Delaware River Estuary and providing for a formal review of the designated aquatic life uses and water quality criteria necessary to support these uses.

“The resolution outlines a deliberative, scientific process to further study evidence on the reproduction of resident and migratory fish in a 38-mile section of the tidal Delaware River stretching from Wilmington, Del. to just above the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge connecting Philadelphia and New Jersey,” said DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini. “This study will allow the commission to determine the ‘designated use’ of this reach of the river and provide data and information to establish revised water quality standards. It also affirms the important goal of continued water quality improvement shared by the DRBC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the estuary states of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”

The DRBC-approved resolution provides for scientific and technical studies to be performed over the next 3.5 years for the following purposes:

  • To conduct additional field studies of the occurrence, spatial and temporal distribution of the life stages of important fish species that utilize the estuary;
  • To determine the dissolved oxygen requirements of these fish species and the oxygen-depleting nutrient loadings from point (end-of-pipe) and nonpoint (runoff) sources that can be discharged into the tidal river while maintaining the dissolved oxygen levels in the water;
  • To conduct an analysis to determine the attainability of the dissolved oxygen requirements and water quality standards that would result in an upgrade in the designated aquatic life use in this 38-mile stretch of the tidal Delaware River, including technical, social, and economic factors; and
  • To identify and evaluate opportunities for early action to reduce oxygen-depleting discharges to this stretch of river in the short term.

The resolution directs the initiation of DRBC rulemaking to revise the designated aquatic life uses consistent with the results of these scientific and technical studies as well as the federal Clean Water Act. The commission seeks to issue a final rule and an implementation strategy within six years, dependent on the availability of resources to fund the effort.

“The action taken by the commissioners is the continuation of water pollution control efforts that have been underway in the Delaware River Basin for over 50 years, and that have achieved the much-improved water quality that now exists in this area,” noted Tambini.

When the DRBC was created in 1961, little or no dissolved oxygen was present in the Delaware River from Wilmington to Philadelphia for periods of up to six months each year. To combat this serious challenge, DRBC in 1967 established designated aquatic life uses for the Delaware Estuary (tidal river and bay) and associated numerical water quality criteria necessary to protect those uses. The designated use in the 38-mile stretch of river between Wilmington and Philadelphia was “maintenance” (survival) of resident fish and movement of migratory fish through these waters to spawning areas.

Significant improvements in dissolved oxygen levels have occurred throughout this 38-mile stretch of the tidal Delaware River since 1967. This shared achievement has been the result of effective water management by DRBC, the federal government, and the basin states, public interest in the restoration and protection of this important natural resource, and substantial investment in wastewater treatment works by public entities and private industry. By the late 1980s, over one billion dollars had been spent on improving wastewater treatment facilities throughout the Delaware River Basin, which benefitted communities along the river and strengthened fish populations.

The scientific and technical studies to be undertaken as the result of the approved resolution will help to better inform decision makers on dissolved oxygen requirements of resident and migratory fish species since the early life stages of estuarine fish species are generally more sensitive to dissolved oxygen levels than are the adults living in the river stretches or just passing through these waters to reach spawning areas.

In order to fulfill their obligation under the Clean Water Act to designate and protect uses for surface waters including the shared waters of the Delaware River Estuary, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania either apply DRBC water quality standards that they have jointly established or provide for application of the more stringent of state and DRBC standards within the basin.

A draft version of the resolution was published Feb. 23, 2017 on the DRBC’s web site. A special public hearing on the draft resolution was held on April 6 and written comments were accepted through April 13. Following a review of all comments, DRBC staff in consultation with the commissioners developed a comment and response document, including a clarifying change to the Feb. 23 draft resolution. Additional information, including the approved resolution and the comment and response document, are available on the commission’s web site at www.drbc.net.

The DRBC is a federal/interstate government agency responsible for managing the water resources within the 13,539 square-mile Delaware River Basin without regard to political boundaries. The five commission members are the governors of the basin states (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania) and the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ North Atlantic Division, who represents the federal government.

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Contact: Clarke Rupert, Clarke.Rupert@drbc.nj.gov, (609) 883-9500 ext. 260

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