A coalition of conservation and sporting groups is circulating a letter asking the federal government to restore funding to the Delaware River Basin Commission in the next budget cycle.

The U.S. government has met its 20 percent funding obligation for the regional watershed commission, known as the DRBC, only once since the 1996-1997 fiscal year.

"Even worse than the lack of the federal funding is that it allows other state contributing parties, such as Pennsylvania, to point to the lack of federal funding when they decide to slash their own budget for DRBC, so their budget is on a real downward spiral," said Kim Beidler, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, the nonprofit asking its members to sign the letter to Washington policymakers.

The Delaware River Basin Commission manages drinking water flow for more than 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. It is funded by each of the four member states and the federal government, as well as permit fees, fines, and grants.

U.S. legislators stopped funding in the 1997 fiscal year as part of an effort to cut spending and balance the federal budget.

Since then, the DRBC went from a high of 46 employees in 2000 to a current 39 employees, and long-term planning has slowed, said executive director Steve Tambini.

"Some of the planning activity that normally we would be undertaking has either been deferred, stretched out, or in some cases completely put off," Tambini said.

"People want to know, 'What does the future look like?'" Tambini said. "We've certainly got exceptional science people here, exceptional engineers, but in order to do that planning we need a good stable sustainable source of funding." 

Climate change and its impact on drinking water supplies are key areas the DRBC should be focusing on, said former head Carol Collier.

"We did a water resource plan back in 2004, here we are in 2015, 11 years later, and it has not been updated," she said.

Collier, now with the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said droughts and rising sea levels brought about by climate change could push salty water from the Delaware Bay toward a Philadelphia drinking water intake.

"That is a whole new management scheme that the basin commission needs to be working on and does not have the resources to do," she said.

Citing the lack of federal contributions, Pennsylvania this fiscal year slashed its required 25 percent contribution to the roughly $5.5 million budget by about half.

A law passed last year requires federal officials to explain their reasons for not meeting their obligations to river basin commissions, and the possible impact of that choice, if they decide not to pay.

Beidler hopes the new law nudges the federal government to pay up this year for just the second time in almost two decades.