From the Supreme Court to the Delaware

From the Supreme Court to the Delaware

Political precedent had changed since the consideration and subsequent scrapping of the Connecticut Housatonic River plan in the early 1900s. When the Schoharie Reservoir was complete, New York City’s daily water intake was rising to 42 million gallons, so the Board of Water Supply began to look into the development of the Delaware River and its tributaries. Despite state approval, the city’s plans to build five more reservoirs were challenged by New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which shared the interstate waters of the Delaware River. The dispute went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1931 allowed New York City to take no more than 440 million gallons of water a day from the river system.

A stereoscopic black and white photograph of a river seen from high up on a hill. Farmland surrounds the narrow-looking river. The text "View from summit of Mt Minsi" is typed onto the image.
View of the Delaware River from Mt. Minsi, Delaware Water Gap. Source: NYPL Digital Collections. Link.
A faded color photo of a riverbank with canoes in the foreground. In the background there are two mountain cliffs hugging the curves of the river around the bend.
The Delaware Water Gap, ca. 1900. Source: Library of Congress. Link.

Unlike the Hudson River Watershed, the vast majority of which lies within New York State, the Delaware Watershed encompasses significant portions of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York. All 4 states now share access, supplying water to over 13 million people in the mid-Atlantic region.

This multi-state compromise was reached after contested claims to jurisdiction and legal arguments including a case brought by New Jersey, contesting New York’s claims to the Delaware’s water, which reached the Supreme Court in 1931. Ultimately, the court ruling allowed NY access to 440 million gallons a day from the Upper Delaware. Though the city had sought an even greater allotment, this decision provided the legal foundation for the further expansion of the NYC water supply.

A black and white photo with a black border and tape artifacts covering some numbers. The photo shows a river curved through a mountainous valley. The photo is taken from high up on a mountain looking down.
Delaware Water Gap, ca. 1900. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
A black and white newspaper clipping.
New York Times article published February 3, 1931 on the legal dispute over access to the Delaware water supply. Headline reads “REPORT FAVORS CITY IN WATER DIVERSION; Supreme Court Master Would Allow 440,000,000 Gallons a Day From Upper Delaware. CITY HAD ASKED 600,000,000 New Jersey to Be Protected by Provisions for Maintaining the Flow of the River. PENNSYLVANIA IS EXCLUDED Corporation Counsel Here Declares That the City Will Be Thus Supplied Until 1950. New Jersey Began Fight in 1929. Report Sees Need of New York. Meets City’s Needs Until 1950. Report Disappoints Trenton” Source: New York Times. Link.

“WASHINGTON, Feb. 2.—The right of New York City to increase its water supply by taking water from five tributaries of the Delaware River within the boundaries of New York State was upheld in a report made to the Supreme Court today by Charles N. Burch of Memphis, special master …”

A black and white newspaper clipping.
New York Times article published March 17, 1931. Headline reads, “HIT BURCH FINDINGS ON DELAWARE RIVER; New York and New Jersey File Exceptions in the Supreme Court. JERSEY ASKS A FULL BAN State Contends That Any Water Diversion Will Infringe on Riparian Rights of Citizens.” Source: New York Times. Link.

“WASHINGTON, March 16 (AP).— Both New Jersey and New York filed exceptions with the Supreme Court today to the report of Special Master Charles N. Burch in the suit whereby New Jersey seeks to restrain the city of New York from diverting water from the upper branches of the Delaware River.”

A computer generated map of the Delaware River Basin in the context of the larger map of the NJ, PA, Delaware, NY areas.
Eight regional watershed “clusters” in the Delaware River Basin. Source: Delaware River Watershed Initiative via Center for Watershed Protection. Link.

“The Delaware River system is the lifeblood of the Mid-Atlantic, supplying drinking water and jobs for millions.”

“The Delaware River basin flows from the Catskill Mountains of New York through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and into the Atlantic at Delaware Bay. This web of rivers and streams is the lifeblood of the region. It provides drinking water for 15 million people, including the communities of New York City, Trenton, Philadelphia and Wilmington. It sustains orchards, wineries, dairy farms and nurseries. Its free-flowing waters, world-class fisheries, and streamside parks draw anglers, birders, bicyclists and paddlers from across the region and the world.”

“Smart laws and caring landowners have helped clean up historic pollution, but poorly planned development is still a threat. Rain running off roads and parking lots carries oil and chemicals. The loss of trees and native plants that act as natural water filters leads to flooding, and streams clogged with silt, trash and algae.”

— Text by the Delaware River Watershed Initiative on

An infographic map of the Delaware River Basin showing how the usage of the watershed is shared NY, NJ, PA, and Delaware. The total population served is 13.3 million. It shows direct and diverted supplies with NY having the highest amount of people served (4.5 million) through diversion of water, but less than 1 million directly served in the area. PA has 5.6 million people directly served. NJ 1.9 million, Delware 0.7million.
Map showing the regional breakdown of the total population served by the Delaware River Basin, 2016. Source: Delaware River Basin Commission. Link.
A map of the Delaware River Basin showing the outline of the basin itself, and then a cutaway of the location of the basin in the Northeast United States. A Library of Congress stamp is stamped with the date 1999.
The Delaware River Basin. River basins of the United States, US Geological Survey, 1991. Cropped view of a larger brochure. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
A panoramic black and white photo of a river in the foreground and two large mountains abutting the waterline in the background.
Delaware Water Gap, PA, ca. 1911. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
A hand-colored photo taken from up high of a river winding around two large mountains with big cliffs. A train is blowing smoke as it chugs along the riverside.
Delaware Water Gap, above the Gap from Winona Cliff, PA. Photograph by William Henry Jackson between 1898 and 1906. Source: Library of Congress. Link.
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