Tom Fikslin is retiring from the Delaware River Basin Commission after 29 years of working on the river and the whole watershed. So the first question, naturally, would be: How clean is the river compared to when he arrived in 1989?
His response, not surprisingly, is measured, as befits this scientist who is the DRBC's director of Science and Water Quality Management: The upper reaches are exceptional quality waters, with forests and limited development. Going downriver, pressures increase from agriculture, more development, suburbs and cities.
So, the Delaware is better than it was when the DRBC was set up in 1961 but there's still work to be done.
Even now as Fikslin prepares to retire, his group is embarking on a significant project exploring whether there's enough oxygen in the tidal river (below Trenton) to allow fish, like the short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered species, to thrive.
Just like us, fish need oxygen. When there is too little, there are dead zones in a water body. Adult fish might survive the swim through such zones, but certainly not juveniles. There is a growing body of evidence that there are young of this and other species in the river -- some of which are from the DRBC's own work in previous years. Some might say that would have been reason enough to enforce higher across-the-board water-quality standards.
Not Fikslin, who embodies what might be called the secret sauce of the DRBC: Make haste slowly.
He points out that one of the functions of the scientists at the DRBC is to develop models of all sorts of activity in the river and bay, and from those models deduce not just what an overall goal is, but to get really specific about goals for improving water quality right at the end of the discharge pipe for a specific enterprise.
Those goals produce varying standards for each of what are called the "regulated community" -- businesses and municipalities whose treated wastewater flows into the river.
Some blanket demand that all of that wastewater meet untested higher standards would likely mean that some of those users might balk and find ways to avoid the cost of treatment to higher standards, and might take legal action to forestall such a demand.
Better, says Fikslin, to patiently see -- through modeling -- just what sorts of reductions are needed where. Prove, through science, that what the DRBC demands is exactly what is needed.
"We want to end up with standards that are the most protective (of species), the most achievable, and the most cost-effective," says Fikslin.
Fikslin is known for this type of patient change, most especially in his work on toxins in the Delaware and especially PCBs, once a ubiquitous cancer-causing chemical used in many electrical components. The process to limit toxins like these is different from the efforts to curb nutrients that are causing dead zones in the river.
Just before Fikslin came to the DRBC he directed the toxicity testing and microbiology section of the Environmental Protection Agency's Region 2 lab in Edison, N.J. He came to the DRBC to develop and implement an Estuary Toxics Management strategy.
He explained that toxicity testing can start with water samples, using a process called Whole Effluent Toxicity. Usually the test doesn't identify what the toxin is, it simply looks at how various aquatic critters respond to a particular water sample, often taken from sites that seem to be likely sources of toxins. If there's a negative reaction, the testers tell the producers that there's a problem, and it becomes the producers' responsibility to do further tests to find out exactly what chemical or chemicals are causing a problem.
Sometimes, it's not just an excess of one chemical, but the chemical mix that causes the problem. Then the goal is to find a way to reduce that negative impact.
For some chemicals, it builds up to toxic levels in fish tissue, which is one of the reasons for limits on how much fish you should eat from the river and bay.
When those limits are increased, it's a sure sign that the water quality is improving.
With PCBs, the process was similar to the one that the DRBC is using for the current modeling project. Stakeholders are part of the process, and the DRBC will even work with them to find the best solution.
Fikslin says it would be unfair -- as well as unproductive -- to ram through any new higher standards without proof that these are the standards for the long-term and not just for a year or two or five, with the DRBC imposing in the comparatively short term another set of standards that must be met. Water treatment is expensive and that sort of investment for businesses and municipalities must be for the long term.
That process worked to reduce PCB levels, but Fikslin isn't in a rush to boast of success. He points out that even though the manufacture of PCBs has been banned by the EPA since the late 70s, there are still units of electrical machinery that have PCBs inside. When that machinery is decommissioned, care needs to be taken as to how they are disposed of.
It's not just PCBs. Fikslin was involved in the DRBC's newer process of collecting data on what are called contaminants of emerging concern. In other words, stuff that we suspect isn't safe, but aren't sure at what levels.
His work continues, even as he prepares to leave.
It's typical in an article like this to contact people who are outside of the DRBC to get some insight on what colleagues say, and to print up a sentence or two. But these were so heartfelt, I thought I'd share them in their entirety. Please note that the DRBC and the Riverkeeper are often at odds, especially with regard to how fast some improvements are to be enforced.
I have worked with Tom for over 20 years.
He is a dedicated and committed scientist and true public servant. In all the time I have known Tom he was always committed to the truth and to using accurate science to encourage good decision making. His opinions are informed by the facts.
Tom was always the member of the DRBC staff that every person could turn to for a clear explanation of the science and the facts that could help inform the conversation and drive decision making towards a smart outcome that best serves the community as a whole.
No one ever had to wonder if Tom had some unknown agenda, he is a straight shooter. I may not have always liked what Tom had to say, but I always knew I could trust it because it was coming from Tom.
He will be sorely missed.
His retirement comes at a critical time in the history of the DRBC, when they are grappling with big issues that will have enduring impacts on the future of our watershed. His retirement is a wonderful life step for him, but a huge loss for the river community.
Saying that, I wish him all the best in the world, he is a warm, genuine, and honorable person – one of the best I have had the good fortune to work with.
Maya K Van Rossum
The Delaware Riverkeeper
From my perspective, Tom dedicated his years at DRBC to advance, through science and research, a better understanding of water quality in the watershed that led to the development of informed regulations and policies.
Water Resource Association of the Delaware River Basin
I first started working with Tom in 2004 on the planning of the first Delaware Estuary Science Conference. He served on the Steering Committee for that very successful meeting where we identified top priorities for Delaware River Basin science and management. I quickly came to trust Tom's leadership and knowledge, especially regarding all issues related to water quantity and quality.
Tom was the first person I reached out to in 2006 when we set up the new Science and Technical Advisory Committee, and he has served on that ever since, guiding strategic peer review and taking a lead role in crafting important National Estuary Program products such as State of the Estuary Reports and Science Briefs. Tom has always had an encyclopedic knowledge and ability to recall key facts and figures - he will be sorely missed!
Senior Science Director
Partnership for the Delaware Estuary