Who cares about the DRBC?

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Today could be a big day in the ongoing drama of the Delaware River Basin Commission, a one-of-a-kind interstate and federal agency that oversees water quantity and quality in the vast watershed that provides drinking water for nearly 16 million people.

Of late, the commission has been the topic of debate, harangue and worse because it is holding up natural gas drilling in the watershed, which has presumed rich Marcellus shale gas reserves in its upper portions, including some northeastern Pennsylvania counties.

The commission has declared a moratorium until regulations can be adopted. But that has taken some time. And now funding pressure seems to be a new wrinkle.

Today, executive director Carol R. Collier and deputy executive director Robert Tudor are in Washington, D.C., trying to convince the federal Office of Management and Budget to meet its obligation to ante up funding for the commission’s annual budget.

When the commission was formed, its members — the four states with land in the basin plus a federal representative — agreed to a “fair share” funding structure.

The commission has a new web site that’s interesting to rummage around on, but if you haven’t the time, here’s a link to the full financial information.

But now, as I reported in Tuesday’s Inquirer, the federal government has paid up in more than a decade.

New York has been sliding, too. Tuesday’s story left out the details, so here they are now: According to the fair share formula, New York should pay 17.5 percent of the budget, or $626,000 a year. Instead, the state paid $472,800 in fiscal year 2010. It paid $370,505 in FY 2011. The state is paying $355,000 in FY 2012. And the budget for FY 2013 calls for the $246,000.

Pennsylvania has not made its second and third quarterly payments this fiscal year, and it seems unlikely to make its fourth. The is simple budget-cutting, the state says, although it didn’t hack at the Susquehanna River Basin Commission’s budget nearly as much.

Only Delaware and New Jersey have paid up, which is interesting because last year New Jersey threatened to withhold funds if the commission didn’t pass regulations that would allow natural gas development to proceed.

So will the feds come through today?

Observers say that if the commission can’t get money of out of the Obama administration, it certainly won’t be able to get one out of a Republic administration.

Collier said today’s meeting was arranged with the aid of Vice President Biden’s senior staff. She met with them, and “they really listened with interest about what our situation was.”

It’s easy to see why Biden’s staff was sympathetic. Delaware has nothing to gain in the drilling sphere - except perhaps cheap gas. And, if drilling degrades the water quality of the great river that flows along its eastern border, everything to lose.

Delaware Gov. Markell was emphatic last November in his contention that the commission should not vote on regulations until it had more information.

New Jersey is an interesting case. Gov. Christie has been pushing for regulations that would lead to drilling, saying his state needs the gas. But I wonder about the state’s democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. Are they pushing to see the federal government come through with funding?

Collier said the agency is limited in how it can raise funds outside the state amounts.

“We’re looking at grants. We’re trying to do more with less. We’re tightening the belt, as we have been since the federal government stopped paying,” Collier said earlier this week.

The day after the story about the funding, two guest writers for the pro-gas blog, Energy In Depth, wrote that it was “time to set the DRBC adrift without a paddle.”

“The DRBC is touted as a ’model agency.’ But, we know that it is, and has been, far overstepping its bounds and trying to exert far more power than it should have for too long,” they said in the post. “Now, by refusing to vote on the regulations, it has instituted an all out ban on natural gas development. It has not done so in so many words, but the effect is obvious from our viewpoint and deliberate from theirs."

At Wednesday's commission meeting, the federal representative, Lt. Col Philip Secrist of the U.S. army Corps of Engineers said the commission is still working on the regulations.

Not soon enough for pro-drilling interests. "New Jersey and Delaware should get on the wagon and hold their payments, too,” the EID blogger said.

I wonder if that’s not sort of like throwing out the baby with the bath water ... or the river water, as the case may be.

There’s argument aplenty about whether the commission is doing as good a job as it should on any number of fronts -- hardly a surprise there -- but I haven’t heard anyone say the commission’s overall work isn’t vital.

One of its earliest jobs - and perhaps still the most important — is simply apportioning the resource.

The goal is to make sure New York City gets enough water from the upstate New York reservoirs, yet still keep enough in them to maintain a target flow at Trenton and keep the salt line somewhere around the Commodore Barry Bridge so Philly’s drinking water intakes don’t get salty and so industries with cooling water intakes upstream don’t corrode their pipes. And to make sure there’s enough water to maintain cool temperatures for trout. And to make sure there’s not so much water that it exacerbates floods.

If this isn’t a head-bone-connected-to-the-neck-bone kind of situation, I don’t know what is.

One could argue — and many interested parties certainly do — that the commission is not divvying the water up correctly, but it would be nonsensical to say the water doesn’t need divvying up.

Then there’s water quality. The Delaware River has headwaters that are so pristine that they warrant special protections.

And groundwater protection. Officials are working to come up with a plan to reduce PCB loads in the estuary. They’re devising a nutrient strategy.

“I guess what bothers me is that there’s so much focus right now on DRBC’s role in natural gas, people have forgotten the other values we provide to our five members and the citizens of the basin,” Collier said.

She hears this a lot: “Why do we need the DRBC? Doesn’t the state do all those things?”

“We really focus on the shared problems, where you can’t solve the problems from any one shore,” she said. “We’re looking at the larger picture, the shared waters. We’re filling gaps where necessary.”

It’s a messy business, fraught with political shenanigans and no dearth of lawsuits. Even within this cooperative framework.

Without the DRBC?

“There would be many more lawsuits between and among the states and other parties,” Collier said.

The Inquirer had an editorial this morning — I don’t participate in the opinions and didn’t know about it ahead of time — saying that “Without question, the DRBC has a vital role to play in monitoring both the shale-drilling issue and other water quality concerns - the very reasons the agency was created by government compact a half-century ago. Maintaining the agency's robust oversight ability will be vital for as long as the millions who call this region home need to quench their thirsts.”

Before it was formed by a federal compact in 1961, the states were embroiled in argument.

The commission was the first of its kind and, perhaps, the last. The Susquehanna Basin Commission was founded not long after, but it doesn’t have the water quality mandate, just water quantity oversight. To the west, the Ohio basin doesn’t have much of a commission at all.

Others have tried, said Jeff Featherstone, a Temple University professor and former DRBC deputy executive director, but they largely failed. Getting agreements among differing states and other entities was too complicated.

So what now? Will the commission survive natural gas drilling?

If it doesn’t, will the Delaware River basin survive natural gas drilling?

Line up and place your bets.

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