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    April 11, 2016

50 Years of Cooperative Interstate Water Management in the Delaware River Basin

Managing Water for New York City, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware

Map of the Delaware River Basin.Celebrating 50 Years of Cooperation--Message from the USGS Associate Director for Water

June 7, 2004, is the 50th anniversary of the Amended Decree of the United States Supreme Court that established the current allocation of water from the Delaware River Basin to New York City, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

As part of that historic decree, entered on June 7, 1954, the U.S. Geological Survey was designated as the home of a new position: the Delaware River Master. The USGS was selected because of its long history--now 125 years--as a non-regulatory, unbiased, and impartial scientific agency that provides data, information, and knowledge about the Earth and its resources, processes, and hazards so that others can make decisions and set policy. The Delaware River Master is responsible for administering the provisions of the Decree, through the use of timely and accurate information on basin water resources.

Successful Water-Resource Management through Effective Cooperation
The Decree:

  • Is based on the doctrine of equitable apportionment
  • Defines New York City's diversion of water from the Delaware River Basin to its water-supply system
  • Requires compensating releases to the Delaware River from New York City's three reservoirs in the upper basin
  • Defines New Jersey's diversion of water from the basin
  • Directs the Delaware River Master to conserve the waters of the basin

Water Management Preceding the Delaware River Master
In the 1920's, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were interested in developing water supplies from the Delaware River Basin for their needs. They tried several times to negotiate workable compacts but were unsuccessful. Then, New York City, which lies outside the boundaries of the Delaware River Basin, began planning to develop new sources of supply from the Delaware Basin. In 1929, New Jersey brought action in the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the City and State of New York from diverting the waters of any tributary to the Delaware River. In 1931, the Court handed down a decision that gave New York City the right to withdraw 440 million gallons per day (mgd) of water from reservoirs the City planned to build on headwater tributaries feeding the main stem of the Delaware River.

New York City eventually realized that the 440 mgd allocation would be insufficient to meet expanding water needs and, in 1952, filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to increase its diversion of Delaware River Basin water to 800 mgd. An Amended Decree was entered on June 7, 1954, stipulating a new diversion rate of 800 mgd for New York City, contingent upon the City making compensating releases downstream to meet a Decree-defined flow objective on the Delaware River at Montague, NJ. In addition, the 1954 Decree granted New Jersey the right to divert up to 100 mgd from the Delaware River Basin without compensating releases.

USGS Streamgaging Station on the Delaware River at Montague, NJ.Standing the Test of Time
For 50 years, the Office of the Delaware River Master, along with New York City, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and, subsequently, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) have worked cooperatively to carry out the provisions of the Decree by managing the diversions to New York City and New Jersey and the compensating releases to the Delaware River from the City's three reservoirs in the upper basin. The accord has stood the test of time because of the impartial role of the Delaware River Master's Office and the cooperative spirit of the Decree Parties and the DRBC, who have worked together to jointly address a wide range of important and potentially contentious issues as they have arisen.

In return for New York City being able to divert 800 million gallons per day from the Delaware River Basin, the City is required to release enough water from its upper-basin reservoirs--Neversink, Pepacton, and Cannonsville--to ensure the river flow is adequate for the needs and health of downstream communities and ecosystems. So how do you know if the flow is "adequate"? You know, based on long-term monitoring of the Delaware River at Montague, NJ, that you need to meet a "flow objective" of 1,750 cubic feet per second (one cubic foot of water flowing each second is equal to about 7.48 gallons) as measured by the USGS streamflow-gaging station at that location.

The USGS maintains more than 7,000 streamflow-gaging stations nationwide, many in cooperation with other Federal, State, and local agencies, which keep tabs on the flow of the nation’s rivers and streams. This information is essential for achieving compliance with legally mandated flow requirements, and it is used to safeguard lives and property and ensure adequate water resources for a healthy environment and a vibrant economy. The USGS gage at Montague has been in operation since 1939 and serves as one of the essential gages in the National Streamflow Information Program in meeting the Federal goal for interstate waters.

Did You Know?
The Delaware Aqueduct is the longest continuous tunnel in the world. It is an 84-mile-long tunnel cut into the underlying bedrock. The tunnel connects Rondout and Hillview Reservoirs. It crosses beneath the Hudson River at Chelsea, NY, where it is about 600 feet beneath the river. The water flows by gravity from upland source areas in the Catskill Mountains to topographically lower areas in Putnam and Westchester Counties, and in Yonkers.

Today, nearly 15 million people in 4 states, about 5 percent of the nation's population, rely on the waters of the Delaware River Basin, although the watershed drains only 0.4 percent of the total continental U.S. land area. The 15 million figure includes about 7 million people in the New York City and northern New Jersey area who live outside the basin. New York City gets roughly half its water from three large reservoirs located on tributaries to the Delaware.

The Delaware River is the longest un-dammed river east of the Mississippi River. Three quarters of the river and its tributary streams are included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

Visit the Office of the Delaware River Master

Visit the Delaware River Basin Commission

Find out the current water conditions in your area

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