Commentary: Delaware River commission marks anniversary

By Steve Tambini

This past April, the nation observed the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This annual, and now global, celebration focuses attention on our critical and often fragile relationship with our natural resources, including the waters of the Delaware River Basin.

Steve Tambini

In the decades that preceded that first Earth Day, the Delaware River was a waterway in serious decline. As the population centers along this historic river grew, its waters became a dumping target for whatever drained off the land or could be diverted through a pipe.

Choked by pollution and waste, the industrial section of the river between Philadelphia and Wilmington was effectively stripped of oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Blocked by the heavily polluted dead zones in the river, fish like the American shad could not complete their migration cycle upstream to spawn and then travel back to the Atlantic Ocean to live. Fish populations and related fishing industries suffered and declined.

President John F. Kennedy and the basin state governors sign ceremonial compact documents at the White House on Nov. 2, 1961. Seated, from leftt, are New Jersey Gov. Robert Meyner, Delaware Gov. Elbert Carvel, Pennsylvania Gov. David Lawrence and President Kennedy./Submitted photo/DRBC Archives

Recognizing that improving the Delaware River’s waters would require an organized, multistate approach, on Oct. 27, 1961 — nine years before the first Earth Day and 11 years before adoption of the Clean Water Act — the Delaware River Basin Compact became law, creating the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC). At a ceremonial signing event at the White House on Nov. 2, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: “We are glad to join with Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in this bold venture. The task set for the commission will not be easy to achieve, but we are confident that the cooperation that has brought forth this compact will endure and that (by) working together, real progress can be made for the people of the basin.”

Delaware River pollution in this area was not kind to humans either. Most of us know someone who remembers the condition of the river back then. Unlike today, the sights and smells of the river were not conducive to a walk along the shoreline, riverfront dining or an open-air concert. The situation sparked the creation of state and federal environmental protection agencies and, eventually, the federal Clean Water Act that became law in 1972.

One of the commission’s primary purposes is to “control future pollution and abate existing pollution in the waters of the basin.” For nearly 60 years, the DRBC and its small but dedicated staff of planners, scientists and engineers have led the way to create policy and programs to manage, protect and improve the water resources of the Delaware River Basin, including the development and implementation of plans to improve water quality.

Working with other agencies such as the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, DRBC has led a collaborative effort to clean up the heavily polluted interstate waters. The work has resulted in significant improvement in the river’s water quality. Fish populations, like the shad, are recovering. More visibly, above the surface, people have returned to the Delaware River waterfront to live, work and play. Economic development is booming along the Delaware River and its tributaries. The skylines and shorelines in Wilmington, Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, tell a story of success.

While much has changed since 1961, what remains true today is the need for coordinated water resource management across the entire Delaware River Basin.

DRBC continues to recognize the advantages of working across political boundaries to make the Delaware River Basin the national model for sustainable economic development, drinkable clean water, healthy fish and wildlife populations, outdoor recreation and nature-based climate resilience. Through science, regulation, investment, cooperation and hard work, one of the most polluted waterways in the nation is recovering and thriving. As a result, we take considerable pride in what we have accomplished to improve the quality of our interstate waters, and we look forward to continuing to work with the basin community to address future water resource challenges.

Happy anniversary, DRBC!

Steve Tambini, P.E., has been the executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission since 2014. Learn more about the DRBC at drbc.gov.