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Susquehanna River Basin Commission under microscope

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A view of the Route 30 bridge from the Marietta Access boat ramp along the Susquehanna River.
A view of the Route 30 bridge from the Marietta Access boat ramp along the Susquehanna River. - (Photo / )

East Berlin in Adams County is about 29 miles due west from the Susquehanna River.

The borough taps groundwater for its residents, but when it went about updating its well system a few years back, borough officials got more than a geography lesson when it came to approvals they needed from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

“It is a self-serving bureaucracy that is overreaching and exists to perpetuate itself,” said Matt Battersby, the attorney for the East Berlin Municipal Authority. “How did they come to take away a municipal right that existed long before they existed?”

Battersby maintains that the commission bullied the authority into doing extensive studies that cost more than $40,000. After the report was delivered, he added, the commission charged $17,000 to process it. At first, the borough refused to pay but capitulated under the threat of fines and penalties, said state Rep. Dan Moul, a Republican whose district includes parts of Adams County.

Moul and state Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a Republican whose district is in southern York County, said East Berlin’s story is being repeated up and down the river, which stretches from New York, through Pennsylvania and into Maryland before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.

Moul and Phillips-Hill said a series of public hearings and meetings with constituents has shown that businesses and municipalities claim they have been subjected to a pattern of costly and unnecessary reports that led to threats of fines, penalties or shut-downs from the commission if they didn’t comply.

Several people contacted about their experiences were reluctant to discuss their situations because they fear that speaking out will lead to higher costs for ongoing projects. They emphasize that they fully support a healthy Susquehanna River and efforts to clean it up, but they said they risk being attacked for being anti-environment if they complain publicly.

“They say they don’t want to talk because, if they do, the commission will ‘make life miserable for us,’” Moul said.

Even Moul and Phillips-Hill are careful about such points, making clear that they support a healthy river. They note that other agencies, such as the state Department of Environmental Protection, regulate clean water. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission, or SRBC, often requires duplicate work submitted in its own formats, which greatly increases costs, they said.

Moul and Phillips-Hill agree with Battersby’s “overreach” complaint, saying the commission should primarily be responsible for water-quantity issues involving the river and not water-quality issues.

“We don’t want to shut them down; we just want to get them under control,” Moul said.

Moul and Phillips-Hill argue that the commission has evolved beyond its original mandate to ensure that water flowing through the three states is shared fairly. As examples of where it has gone too far, they said, golf courses and other businesses have been forced to pay for expensive monitoring equipment that determines how much water evaporates from areas such as holding ponds and then paying fees based on that rate of loss. That means that some people end up paying for the same water at least twice.

The SRBC was formed in 1971 and includes representatives from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Moul and Phillips-Hill contend that framework leaves the SRBC without oversight, allowing it to create rules and regulations as it pleases and to assess fees and penalties as it sees fit.

Phillips-Hill started looking into constituent concerns about five years ago. As she made her rounds in Harrisburg, she said, she found other representatives with constituents sharing similar stories.

“There really are no checks and balances over the commission,” Phillips-Hill said. “They have created this entity that continues to grow and grow and grow.

“They regulate and fine as a way to support a fiefdom,” she added. “This is bureaucracy gone wild.”

Jen Orr serves on the SRBC as representative for Pennsylvania in her capacity as the director of the compacts and commissions office of the state Department of Environmental Protection. She is a board alternate for Pennsylvania, with DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell as the main contact. Both have been on the SRBC since summer of 2016.

McDonnell was unavailable for comment. Orr said the state is listening to the complaints.

“Yes, it is concerning,” she said. “The department needs to take it seriously and listen … on behalf of our regulated community.”

The SRBC staff is updating its policies to allow better public access to agency records, she said. Steps also are being taken to address how commission staff interacts with the public, Orr said, adding that interactions have been getting better since the hearings last year. In addition, the commission did not raise its fees last year and has been working to address individual concerns.

Another point raised by Moul and Phillips-Hill is that the SRBC has more than $30 million in reserves, which they suggest is largely Pennsylvania’s money because most of the river is in Pennsylvania and most of the money comes from Pennsylvania businesses and municipalities.

On Feb. 13, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said his office will conduct a thorough review of SRBC records focusing on a number of issues, including employee compensation. At a public announcement, DePasquale said the review will be finished by summer and cover from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. The audit also will include the Delaware River Basin Commission.

Andrew D. Dehoff, the SRBC’s executive director, said he welcomes the audit. In fact, he said, the SRBC suggested last summer that the Auditor General conduct a probe. He said the agency’s regulations and fee schedule are clearly posted on its website. Commission guidelines ensure that water sources are viable and reliable, he said.

Orr also welcomes the probe, saying an outside perspective will help identify issues and lead to recommendations on how to further address concerns.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Orr.

Dehoff and Orr said the more than $30 million in reserve accounts is intended to find and use alternative water sources in time of drought. Orr said some areas are particularly prone to drought-related issues that require close monitoring and planning.

Battersby said he has asked repeatedly what the alternative source would be to help East Berlin, but he said the SRBC has not made clear where water would come from to help the small community.

“That is not what they are doing for East Berlin,” he said.

Orr said the Army Corps of Engineers maintains water resources in the region and the SRBC has water deposited in them that can be withdrawn, if needed. She said a map of those water sources has been created and is available online to the public. It shows Cowanesque Lake on the New York and Pennsylvania border and Whitney Point Lake in New York. It also shows Curwensville Lake, which is about 150 miles northwest of East Berlin. Those three are owned by the Corps, Orr said.

The SRBC also has water in Conowingo Pond, about 31 miles southeast of Shrewsbury, a small York County borough close to the Maryland border.

Buck Buchanan is president of the borough council in Shrewsbury, which is in Phillips-Hill’s district. He said he shares some of the concerns, pointing out that money paid to the SRBC are especially costly for a water system that serves fewer than 4,000 people. Those costs must be passed onto users as higher water-usage fees.

He stressed that he supports programs to clean the river and the Chesapeake Bay. But, he said, the Shrewsbury wells are far from the river and have been pulling groundwater for generations. Burdensome regulations have gotten out of control, he said.

“They are doing their jobs but they have lost their perspective,” Buchanan said of the SRBC. “The extra costs are phenomenal.”

He also thinks it is a fairness issue. A lot of people with private wells — for example all the people who surround the borough but are in Shrewsbury Township — tap groundwater but are not under SRBC rules. When the region experiences a severe drought, everyone will be affected. But only the businesses and municipal water systems under the SRBC rules are paying to help ensure alternative water sources, he said.

Buchanan thinks that is unfair. If everyone would benefit from those sources, then everyone should contribute to a tax system that would benefit the entire basin.

“That way,” he said, “We are all paying.”

Review underway

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Feb. 13 that his office will conduct an audit of the Delaware River Basin Commission and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. The separate audits have similar objectives:

  • Cost of salaries and benefits.
  • Other costs.
  • The potential for efficiencies and to examine if there are duplication of efforts with other Pennsylvania entities.
  • An examination of fees and penalties and contributions made by the commonwealth.
  • The effect of fees and penalties on public and private entities.
  • The cost of expense reimbursements for officers and employees of the commissions.

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