By Scott Moore, Senior Fellow

The Water Center at Penn

July 16, 2020

One of the most basic, pervasive, and difficult challenges to managing water effectively and sustainably is that it rarely respects borders and boundaries. Our governments and societies are built largely on lines on a map that distinguish one country, state, province, city and county from another – but rarely if ever does nature follow the same geographic logic. Instead, natural entities like river basins and watersheds have less rigid boundaries. This creates significant problems when people in one city or country want to figure out how to share the water from a shared lake or river, or when a downstream farmer or bather finds his stream has been polluted by an upstream neighbor.  

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The mis-match between how humans have carved up the world and how water flows through it means that water governance is almost always an exercise in cooperation and collective action between people who live in different political jurisdictions, including countries, states, provinces, and municipalities. In economic terms, dealing with issues like flood control or water pollution involves high spillover effects, meaning that it’s almost impossible to tackle them in one place or locality and not another. On the other hand, the costs and benefits of addressing these issues are typically shared between all who use water from the same lake, river, or other waterbody. Many water uses, like providing clean water, are public goods – and require public effort to provide.   

These kinds of regional water management challenges are common to most if not all countries – a challenge I explore in my 2018 book, Subnational Hydropolitics. But they are more pronounced for countries like the United States and India that feature a federal system of government, because powers and responsibilities are divided not only between states themselves but also between state and federal governments. As the political scientist Wallace Oates once observed, America’s highly decentralized federal system is “quite poorly designed to deal with the provision of certain important public goods, notably environmental resources,” and that “a much more rational map would probably entail some fairly sizeable regional governments that extend over watersheds.”  

Creating regional governments, though, is an expensive and difficult proposition, and raises a host of questions. What functions will they perform? How will they relate to existing state and local governments? How will they represent water users within their jurisdictions? And, perhaps most important, who pays for them? The United States, like other large countries, has developed a number of institutional models to try to answer these questions. The best-known is probably the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a unique federal agency created to advance multiple objectives including flood control, hydropower generation, and economic development. But the TVA arose in very unusual historical circumstances – it was a creature of the New Deal and attempts to replicate it often provoked intense opposition on the grounds of usurping state and local powers. A 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune editorial, for example, called the TVA “a gigantic federal enterprise” which “takes its orders from Washington.  Its philosophy is federal and the states and cities it serves have no part in its operation.”   

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) represents an alternative solution to the problem of regional water governance, and one that may hold more relevance to other regions seeking to deal with challenges like allocating increasingly scarce water resources, protecting water quality, and adapting to climate change. Unlike the TVA, the DRBC is not meant to be a regional government; instead, it is designed to be a platform for regional governance.  The difference is critical: while the TVA is essentially a large state-owned enterprise, the DRBC serves primarily as a convening platform for representatives of the four states that share the Delaware River basin, along with the U.S. federal government. 

The Delaware River represents an unusually valuable example of regional water governance for several reasons. For one, it is an inherently inter-jurisdictional water body: it forms a state boundary for its entire length. Second, its concentration of population (some 15 million) and economic activity mean that it is the site of almost every conceivable water management challenge, from quantity to quality. Third, environmental issues hold special significance for the Delaware. It is the nation’s longest undammed river, and some 75% of it has been designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

What makes the DRBC different from the TVA and other models of regional water governance is its composition. Each state in the Delaware River basin and the federal government are represented equally, with parties rotating as chair. States are formally represented by governors, who appoint Commissioners to act in their stead. Just as important, the DRBC has a large permanent staff, including technical specialists capable of advising the Commissioners on hydrology, water quality, and other issues important for decision-making. The DRBC also has significant functional powers, including the ability to undertake water quality protection, water supply allocation, permitting and regulatory review functions, water conservation initiatives, watershed planning, drought management, flood management, and recreational enhancement throughout the basin. The DRBC’s distinctive structure and powers have attracted attention from other countries seeking to solve regional water governance problems, and the Commission has hosted delegations from countries as diverse as South Korea, China, Indonesia, the U.K., Sri Lanka, Jordan, Turkey, Uganda, India, and Japan.

The DRBC’s representative structure has helped it address a core challenge for the Delaware River Basin: allocating water between several of America’s most populous states. Throughout the early twentieth century, the states of the Delaware basin were frequently at odds over water diversions, especially to supply New York City with drinking water. These conflicts produced two Supreme Court decisions limiting New York’s use of Delaware River water, one of which, a 1954 consent decree, remains in effect. Yet it was quickly recognized that without a comprehensive approach to managing the basin the water demands of three of the nation’s largest and most heavily industrialized states could not be met. Since its creation in 1961, an important purpose of the DRBC has been to uphold the 1954 decree, and to support its implementation through the creation of basin-wide Comprehensive Plans that guide water use throughout the Delaware River system. This function, in which the DRBC effectively helps both enforce the 1954 decree and adjust it in light of changing hydrological conditions, has done much to prevent inter-state conflict over the Delaware’s waters, particularly during periods of water shortage. 

Yet despite its efficacy in managing water needs and preventing inter-state conflict, as it approaches its sixtieth birthday, the Commission’s job is not done. The Delaware basin faces several challenges that will require the Commission to adapt and evolve in the twenty-first century. The first has to do with water quality. While the Commission has established a comprehensive set of water quality standards, emerging contaminants like endocrine disruptors and microplastics are not yet included, despite growing public concern. The second is salinity management. As sea levels rise, saline water threatens to intrude further up the Delaware and into groundwater aquifers, threatening water supplies especially in the Philadelphia region. This prospect anticipates the third challenge, changing water balance in the basin as a result of climate change. Because of climate effects, flood and drought events are becoming more frequent and severe in the Delaware basin, threatening on the one hand increased risk to people and property and on the other hand to pose a greater risk of water supply interruptions. 

Addressing these challenges will require the DRBC to expand its focus into areas like emerging contaminants, likely creating new regulations, policies, and procedures in the process. It will also demand that the Commission identify new financing mechanisms. More public-private partnerships will probably be needed to support its future initiatives, especially those that involve capital projects. Finally, the Commission will need to find ways to renew its relationships with stakeholders throughout the basin. While the DRBC has an admirable track record of working with non-governmental groups, forging new partnerships with governments, water users, and research institutions in the region will be critical to meeting future challenges. 

The DRBC is something of an institutional treasure for the Philadelphia region, and a globally-important model for solving the problem of regional water governance. With the right reforms, it can continue to be a role model for the world well past its sixtieth birthday. 


Scott Moore is a Senior Fellow at The Water Center at Penn, as well as China Program Director in the Office of the Provost and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science. He previously served as a Young Professional and Water Resources Management Specialist at the World Bank. His book, Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines the case of the Delaware River Basin Commission in historical perspective.