A lack of funding for vital bay and river monitoring systems could leave boaters flying blind and researchers looking for new ways to monitor the estuary.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently posted a notice on its website informing the public of the potential shut down of its Physical Oceanographic Real-Time Systems in the Delaware Bay and Delaware River. PORTS stations measure and disseminate observations and predictions of water levels, currents, salinity, bridge air gap and meteorological parameters that mariners need to navigate safely and efficiently, said Keeley Belva, spokesperson for NOAA.
The system benefits many users in the diverse coastal community such as fisherman, environmental planners, emergency managers and others, Belva said, but it was established primarily to support safety and efficiency decisions made daily by the maritime commerce community.
If funding is not secured by Sept. 1, the systems will be shut down and sensors will be removed.
PORTS is a partnership: NOAA provides program management and a local partner – the Philadelphia Area Port Authority – provides funding for equipment, installation, operations and maintenance of the equipment. The authority cut funding for the Delaware River and Bay system in 2012 and half of 2011, Belva said. Phone calls and emails for information to the port authority regarding cuts in funding were not returned.
Capt. Stephen Roberts, chairman of the Mariner's Advisory Committee, said he hopes a solution to the funding problem will be reached before the September deadline. He said a colleague is working to negotiate with Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials to share the cost associated with the PORTS stations.
As the pilot of a commercial ship who travels the bay and river each week, he said, the stations are an important source for information on tides and other conditions.
“A lot of ships come in deep-loaded, and we only have a 40-foot channel,” he said. “We ride the rising tide up. Before we can begin that evolution, we're constantly monitoring the PORTS system to see what the real-time tide is.”
He said one part of the river can be different from another. Before technological advances provided up-to-the-minute information, Roberts said, the tried-and-true method of monitoring the tide was simply watching how many steps of the dock's ladder were exposed.
Four PORTS will be unaffected by funding cuts, Belva said. The stations at Reedy Point, Lewes, Cape May and Philadelphia will remain operational because they are considered National Water Level Observation Network stations. At least eight other stations in the bay and river will be affected if funding is lost.
In the academic field, researchers such as Dr. Jonathan Sharp of the University of Delaware use the PORTS stations to collect important data about the Delaware estuary. Along with the stations, Sharp said, he uses gauging stations operated by the U.S. Geological Survey to track the ongoing conditions of the Delaware River and Bay.
Information provided by the stations is essential for a project that monitors salinity and the total amount of water discharged from the river's origins. In 2011, he said, Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, in part, created the largest single-year discharge in the Delaware River and Bay in 100 years. He said PORTS stations have been vital in researching the affect a year such as that on the estuary.
“I would not only like to see [PORTS] supported, but I'd like to see it expanded,” he said. “We're still trying to put together a picture of what happened in 2011, but there are still holes there. If there were a few more measurements on those PORTS stations we could really understand it better.”
He said he'd like to see the program funded by the federal government because the Delaware River and Bay are much more important than most people recognize. He said the river and bay serve many valuable purposes, including providing drinking water to four states, being a major channel for commercial shipping and supporting the waste disposal of large cities including Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton.
“The Chesapeake Bay has had tremendous federal support for monitoring and for research, probably at least 50 percent of the entire national estuarine support,” he said. The Delaware Bay has had miniscule [support]. This NOAA PORTS thing is a very small allocation as far as total federal input. If we were to lose the NOAA PORTS measurements it would be a very, very large loss to our ability to understand the it.”