State Water Resources Research Institute Program

Project ID: 2009DE154B
Title: Endangered Species on the Delaware River: Ecological, Economic and Institutional Concerns
Project Type: Research
Start Date: 3/01/2009
End Date: 2/28/2010
Congressional District: At-Large
Focus Categories: Ecology, Water Quantity, Economics
Keywords: Endangered species, dwarf wedgemussel, Delaware River Basin, water allocation
Principal Investigators: Duke, Joshua; Ruppell, Michael
Federal Funds: $ 1,500
Non-Federal Matching Funds: $ 3,000
Abstract: Water flow and quality for the various water uses on the lower Delaware River are of great impact to Delaware's agriculture, recreation and manufacturing industries, and decisions made by individual water users, associations and state and federal governments on flowing water upstream from Delaware's borders have the potential to change greatly Delaware's water allocation and thus change basin characteristics for Delaware's water users. One of the major sources of conflict in many water systems has been the designation of federal endangered and threatened species, as various stakeholders are impacted by the listing of these aquatic species. The stipulations of recovery plans and critical habitat designations considerably concern all affected parties. The concerns increase when multistate laws are the concern, as states, representing recreational, environmental and commercial interests of their states, clash over the various limitations on action necessary in preserving many of these species. Aquatic species in interstate, especially border, rivers have the potential to be especially problematic because of the common conflicts that have been observed in river governance across state borders.

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is the oldest regional federally-sponsored interstate river compact, dating back to 1961. The Commission, which holds the force of law, is responsible for a variety of river management tasks, including quality maintenance, allocation, basin organization, and drought and flow planning. The DRBC authority overlaps state authority. Because the states impacted by river use (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) are equally represented in the Commission's managerial structure, because the river serves as a border between the states throughout its course, and because all stakeholders both within and between states are down river at some point, all states have a vested interest in designing cooperative policies affecting river management. This goal is consistent with scholarship on the use of interstate compacts, which suggest that the compacts hold "unusual promise for resolving national-state and interstate conflicts." As early as 1970, Marc Roberts suggested that "the use of integrated planning [on interstate rivers] can take account of the complexities of stream hydrology and [pollution] abatement technology ... [and] would have the ability to respond effectively to sudden emergency situations."

However, because watersheds do not adhere to political boundaries, and because of the inherent asymmetries associated with a flowing river, interstate river compacts are fragile, and enforceable governance is not an unquestionable assumption. The adoption of federal projects or mandates on interstate rivers has the potential to ruin the integrity of a compact, as states that potentially see their water supply limited have an incentive to challenge other states and the federal government over water allocation and flow management, as occurred in negotiations between Nevada and California in the early 1960's. The DRBC has recently encountered a similar conflict, as a thriving population of the dwarf wedgemussel (alasmidonta heterodon), a federally and state-listed endangered species, was discovered in the Neversink River in Orange County, New York, with a smaller population currently being investigated in northwestern New Jersey.

The management of the dwarf wedgemussel raises important questions about the future of the DRBC and similar regional compacts. Although significant research has been done into political, economic and legal concerns of interstate and international aquatic endangered species preservation, scholarship has focused on the Western United States, where the appropriation regimes and population stresses are significantly different and where the major issue in water management is quantity rather than quality. The scholarship is only marginally applicable to dwarf wedgemussel management, as rights transfers, instream flow requirements and nutrient control policies are of a much different nature in a mixed-use area like the Delaware River Basin, which supplies drinking water to New York City residents, fishing and recreational water in south-central New York and agricultural water in New York and Pennsylvania, and because of the particular habitat complexity of the dwarf wedgemussel. Because the dwarf wedgemussel's discovery is fairly recent, and because scholarship to inform both the academic community and policymakers is limited, research is needed into the particular nature of the dwarf wedgemussel, the nexus between land use, ecological sensitivities and economic considerations and the ability of the current institutions designed to allocate water to meet certain environmental and economic goals. The adoption of effective endangered species management policies that involve informed economic and environmental decision making will allow the states involved in the basin system to continue to cooperate in allocation and quality maintenance despite the increasing presence federal regulations on the aquatic environment likely to occur in coming years. The research, in addition to providing information about economic impacts of endangered species requirements in mixed-use watershed systems, will demonstrate the efficacy of interstate river compacts in preserving water quality and nutrient management and balancing such demands with economically efficient use in the face of strong federal environmental laws.

Progress/Completion Report, 2009, PDF

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