River panels may cut work Federal aid dropped for boards that manage tributaries

States won't make up loss

Commissions oversee water use, flood prevention

November 30, 1996|By John M. Biers | John M. Biers,STATES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The commissions that manage three key rivers flowing through the Mid-Atlantic states may curtail some of their programs to make up for a loss of federal funds.

The Susquehanna, Potomac and Delaware river commissions oversee water consumption, coordinate environmental restoration vital to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup and assist with flood prevention and treatment.

Congress ended funding in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 to save $1.5 million a year. The move reduced the Susquehanna commission's $2.2 million budget by about 15 percent, the Potomac's $2 million budget by about 25 percent, and the Delaware's $3.3 million budget by 20 percent.

The commissions, which each employ from 21 to 38 people, are funded primarily by the states that contain the rivers' watersheds.

Officials from Maryland and several of the affected states said it is unlikely that they will increase their contributions to make up for the lost federal money.

Pennsylvania Susquehanna Commissioner Hugh Archer said that state would continue its support but would not increase it. He expressed concern that the federal action signals a withdrawal from interstate water management.

"If you remove the solution, the problems return," said Archer, noting the commissions' long-standing success in averting water-supply squabbles. " we get into a screaming match, and there's no one there without a vested interest."

House Republicans argued successfully that the river commissions serve regional, not national ends, and in September eliminated the funds, and the full Congress concurred.

Ron Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank that led the effort to eliminate the commissions and about 40 other programs, said the panels were "purely of regional interest" and unworthy of federal support."

"If they provide a valuable function, then presumably the states would be able to fund them," he said.

Under the compacts with the federal government adopted when the Delaware commission was established in the 1960s and the Susquehanna Commission was begun in the 1970s, the two set rules on water usage that affects more than one state. Utilities and municipalities are typical users in those cases.

The Potomac panel, which dates to the 1940s, lacks this authority but sometimes performs the function on an informal basis.

Herbert Sachs, executive director of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, says he deals with issues such as "What is the status of the Potomac? What's going on out there? What are the problems and what can we do to solve them?"

Over time, the three commissions have expanded their work on environmental cleanup and flood prevention.

The Susquehanna and Potomac panels assist the Chesapeake Bay Program with its efforts to reduce river pollutants 40 percent by the year 2000. They help local governments choose the most cost-effective way of reducing pollution.

Bill Matuszeski, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, said the coordination role was essential and said the panels' contribution to bay cleanup is hardly a parochial aim. "There is a national interest in the federal government supporting the Chesapeake," he said. "Because of its diversity, the Chesapeake's is the premier water restoration in the world."

The Susquehanna River, which drains 27,100 square miles in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, is the bay's largest tributary. The Potomac River is the bay's second-largest tributary.

Recently, Potomac officials joined their counterparts from other agencies to counsel four Western Maryland counties on flood prevention. The other two commissions helped reduce damage last January by alerting residents of the effects of increasingly high ice levels.

Critics say that the commissions mostly coordinate with other agencies -- a role that leaves them with little responsibility and few accomplishments. The Environmental Protection Agency does more for the environment, the Army Corps of Engineers more for flooding, they say.

"The commissions are a sideshow," Utt said. "They may be contacted as part of the federal family, but the big money is elsewhere."

The commissions have not yet cut programs or staff, although officials said they expect to make tough choices in the months ahead.

Susquehanna Executive Director Paul Swartz, Sachs and members of the bay program staff recently met with officials of the Environmental Protection Agency to gauge the prospect of seeking funding through EPA instead of the Interior Department, which is overseen by a hostile House subcommittee. The leading Senate Democrat on the EPA panel is Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who has been a backer of the river commissions.

They also met with another supporter, Rep. George W. Gekas, a Pennsylvania Republican, asking the senior Judiciary Committee member to hold a hearing on whether Congress was violating its compacts by cutting funds.

Swartz said the commissions are considering a lawsuit as a "last resort."

There appears to be little chance the states will increase their funding. In fact, at least one state, New York, is considering withdrawing support.

Dan Palm, New York's Susquehanna commissioner, lauded the commission but said the Susquehanna simply lacks the environmental and economic stature of New York's other waters.

"The Susquehanna's a fairly rural water," Palm said. "It's not like New York looks at it and says, 'This is where we want to put our money.' "

Pub Date: 11/30/96

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