A Step Forward For The Ailing Delaware River, Fishery Still At Risk From Drought
Trout Unlimited applauds DRBC action, calls for scientific review of flows for Upper Delaware tailwaters
4/5/2002 -- Hancock, N.Y -- The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and members of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) have reached a one-year agreement to improve water releases out of New York City reservoirs on the West Branch of the Delaware River. At a DRBC meeting held on Wednesday in Trenton, the DRBC accepted the DEC’s proposal to reallocate water to meet a year round flow target on the West Branch Delaware River of 225 cfs at Hale Eddy and maintain certain temperature levels on the West Branch, East Branch, and mainstem of the Delaware and Neversink Rivers this summer. The DRBC has also voted to spend the next year in an intense effort to find a solution to the problem of low flows in the Upper Delaware basin.
Poor flows out of the city reservoirs have chronically impaired the health of these rivers, according to Trout Unlimited (TU), the nation’s leading coldwater fisheries conservation group. New York DEC has been working for years to reach a solution to the problem of flows in the Upper Delaware, and TU applauded its hard work in reaching this deal.
Unfortunately for the river and its fish, the current drought may prevent implementation of the new flow program. The basin remains in drought warning, meaning that releases may continue to be little more than a small leak well into the spring and summer. Unless dramatic rains fall, the parched New York City reservoirs will not fill up, and available water will most likely be insufficient to implement the plan. If drought releases continue through the summer, the West Branch and mainstem of the Delaware will almost certainly see fish kills this year.
The downstream basin states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware accepted New York State’s proposal for 2002 only, with the condition that the basin states, and most importantly New York City, work together to develop a long-term flow plan within one year that will protect the valuable rivers below the reservoirs. The states contend that New York City has to do more to improve flows out of its reservoirs.
“The downstream states make a strong point,” said Nat Gillespie, TU’s Catskills Coordinator. “New York City has consistently taken the position that any water for river health can only come from water already allocated for aquatic health or for downstream use. Their starting point for negotiations has always been that none of the city’s water is available to help the rivers. New York City wastes large amounts of water, and should have interest in helping protect an upstate regional economy that depends on the health of these rivers. We absolutely agree that now is the time to role up our sleeves and work to find a long term solution that provides enough water for the rivers and for water users.”
River health is critical to the rural economies of Delaware and Sullivan counties. According to a TU sponsored study, trout fishing in 1998 on the Delaware River system generated approximately $30 million in Delaware County alone.
Flows out of the three New York City reservoirs are determined by an antiquated interstate compact, memorialized by a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court consent decree. This regime has consistently shortchanged the river health. For example, flows out of the reservoirs have been dangerously and artificially low since “drought emergency” was declared in December. The winter drought releases into the East and West Branches of the Delaware and the Neversink River are lower than any recorded pre-dam flows and are well below inflows into the reservoirs. For example, on March 27th, water released from Cannonsville Reservoir was only 0.2 percent of the water volume flowing into the reservoir.
TU and other river conservation groups have taken the position that river health could be improved dramatically with water quantities that are a tiny fraction of New York City’s water needs. TU and The Nature Conservancy have asked DRBC to convene a scientific summit to explore options for improving river flows and water supply in the Delaware Basin. They want independent scientists to sit down and use the best available technical tools to examine solutions to the problem.
“All of the parties say that their hands are tied by the Supreme Court decree,” said Gillespie. “But that settlement was reached when we as a nation had only rudimentary scientific knowledge and when river health was not even a remote priority. We need to use the best technical tools available to figure out how to give more water to the river while continuing to meet municipal water supply needs. If the science tells us there is a solution that would work for everyone, we should see if it can be implemented under the decree. If it cannot, we should bring the basin states together to change the decree.”
Computer modeling shows that enough water is available to protect the downstream rivers without impacting New York City’s water supply. New York City is among the highest water users in the world, and despite recent conservation efforts, still wastes a great deal of Delaware water. Its aqueduct from the Delaware system to Westchester currently leaks an estimated 34 million gallons per day, more than is used every day by the city of Rochester.
TU’s mission is to conserve, protect, and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. TU has over 125,000 members in the United States, and 24,000 members in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.