Secretary Collin O'Mara says maintenance backlog a growing concern for the agency

The head of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control presented a plan to state budget officials last week that includes a significant increase in the agency’s capital project funding.

Secretary Collin O’Mara said at a preliminary hearing on his agency’s budget requests Nov. 22 that DNREC needs $23.2 million from next year’s bond bill to pay for water quality projects, beach erosion and flood mitigation work, and overdue maintenance at state parks.

In the current year, DNREC got $4.3 million in capital funding, but O’Mara said this year’s much larger request will barely begin to address what the agency really needs.

“The total request is large, but a fraction of our future needs,” he said. “We’re concerned about that growing backlog.”

In his presentation, O’Mara noted that DNREC likely would need upward of $130 million in capital funds in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to cover infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects that have thus far been deferred.

For the coming year, O’Mara’s capital request includes $12.6 million for water quality management.

A sizeable part of the water quality funding would pay for the drilling of 13 new groundwater monitoring wells at various locations in New Castle and northern Kent counties.

The expanded monitoring project was planned in response to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study which found that, because of increased population and demand, major aquifers serving thousands of Delawareans could be “stressed and possibly in excess of safe yield,” according to a detailed explanation provided by DNREC.

The extent of the potential impact development has had on the state’s water supply is largely unknown, DNREC says, mostly because there are too few monitoring wells in place.

O’Mara said the water quality projects are the highest priorities in his capital request.

“We’re trying to focus on high-impact areas that are the most critical,” he said.

The capital budget request also includes $2.5 million to bolster the state’s defenses against serious storms and flooding.

Of that, $1 million would go to replenish beaches in communities along the Atlantic coast and the shores of the Delaware Bay. The agency estimates half of the sand laid down now will have to be replaced in three to five years in order to keep pace with erosion.

“We’re looking at ways to prepare the state for the long-term effects of sea level rise, making sure that when we invest state dollars they’re maximized,” O’Mara said.

Additional capital budget requests include funding to begin planning renovations to Baynard stadium at Brandywine Park in Wilmington and the Ommelanden public shooting range in New Castle.

Though the capital budget was full of high-dollar increases, O’Mara’s operating budget request was relatively flat. The $35.2 million spending plan is roughly $2 million more than last year’s budget — an increase attributable almost entirely to rising employee health care costs.

However, O’Mara did hint at a plan to increase fees charged to companies under DNREC’s permitting umbrella.

The agency, he said, is looking at moving toward a “user pays” model that better reflects the true cost of DNREC’s services in working with industry on air and water pollution permits and environmental cleanup projects.

Fees for permits haven’t been changed since 1991, O’Mara said, and state General Fund dollars frequently are subsidizing divisions that should be self-sustained by fees.

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