Upper Delaware Flows to Plummet to Ecological Disaster Levels
Low Flows Threaten Fish Kills
Nat Gillespie (607) 498-5960
12/5/2001 -- HANCOCK, N.Y.-- -- A “drought emergency” has been declared for the New York City reservoirs in the Upper Delaware basin. The drought emergency threatens fish kills and the loss of an entire year-class of brown trout eggs and fry, compromising the health of a fishery that is worth more than $30 million to the Catskills economy. Trout Unlimited, the nation’s leading advocate for wild trout and salmon, called on Mayor elect Michael Bloomberg to take an active role in improving flow management in the Upper Delaware when he takes office in order to avoid future catastrophes.
As a result of the declared emergency, flows out of reservoirs on the West Branch of the Delaware, the East Branch of the Delaware, and the Neversink River will be cut to a trickle. Ecologically, the drastically reduced flows come at a bad time. Brown trout have just completed spawning, and the flow cuts will leave their eggs stranded on dry river beds. With the return of winter temperatures, anchor ice may cover large sections of the river bottom, thereby killing a significant fraction of this year-class of young fish. Although many adult fish will be able to move into the few remaining deep pools in the river, they will suffer increased mortality as well. As for the aquatic insect population, acres of stream bottom will be exposed to freezing air temperatures as the river shrivels in width.
Lack of rain over the past months has caused reservoir levels to drop, prompting the drought emergency. The situation been worsened, however, by management of Delaware River flows through an antiquated consent decree that settled a Supreme Court case among the four basin states and New York City in the 1950s.
The three reservoirs (Cannonsville on the West Branch, Pepacton on the East Branch, and the Neversink Reservoir) are part of New York City’s water supply system. The reservoir levels have dropped to a level triggering a “drought emergency” for the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), the interstate compact that administers the Supreme Court consent decree. Under a drought emergency, New York City will cut flows in the three rivers to virtually nothing: 5 cubic feet per second (cfs) in the Neversink, 6 cfs in the East Branch, and 8 cfs in the West Branch. These flows are a small fraction of the natural flows in these rivers, and are based on a one in 400 year drought that occurred in the mid 1960’s. Even under current drought conditions, all three rivers are running between 130 and 150 cfs above their reservoirs.
“These paltry flows will be an ecological disaster for the fisheries in these three rivers and an economic disaster for the communities that depend on them,” said Nat Gillespie, Trout Unlimited’s Catskills Coordinator. “With the loss of the recently laid brown trout eggs, as well as mortality of adult fish, we can expect lower fish populations for the next few years. Populations of insects and other invertebrates will also take a hit.”
“If the fishery suffers, these drought flows will have a severe economic impact in the Upper Delaware as well,” said Gillespie. A 1998 study by Trout Unlimited and the American Sportfishing Association found that trout fishing in the East and West Branches generated almost $30 million in economic activity for local communities in Delaware County. The actual value of the fishery is far in excess of this number, because the study did not include Sullivan and Broome counties in New York or Pike and Wayne Counties in Pennsylvania.
“The current system of managing the river’s flows simply makes no sense,” said Leon Szeptycki, Trout Unlimited’s Eastern Conservation Director. “In recent weeks, New York City has been releasing large amounts of water to meet the downstream flow targets called for by the consent decree, contributing to the drop in reservoir levels that have triggered the drought emergency. At the same time, New York City has different drought criteria, and has not triggered extra water conservation measures downstate. Certainly, we have had a lack of rain, but the situation did not need to be this bad. This drought emergency points out the critical need for a better flow management plan for the Upper Delaware. We realize there are many critical issues facing New York City today, but we hope the Mayor-elect will not ignore this long-standing environmental problem.”
The DRBC is currently reexamining the river’s flow management plan. Trout Unlimited is calling for the parties to look at all options, including increased conservation of water, to create a flow management program based on science that will improve the health of the river system as well as the health of the Upper Delaware’s famous wild trout fishery.
Mission: Founded in 1959 in Grayling, Michigan, Trout Unlimited is the nation’s leading coldwater fisheries conservation organization. TU’s 125,000 members in 500 chapters nationwide, including over 8,500 members in New York, are dedicated to the conservation, protection, and restoration of North America’s trout and salmon and their watersheds.