Delaware River Trout Dodge Bullet
High rain totals save rivers for time being. Long-term flow problems remain with NYC reservoirs.
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6/12/2002 -- Hancock, New York -- Today storage levels in New York City’s three reservoirs on upper Delaware River tributaries (the West and East Branches of the Delaware and the Neversink Rivers) met the criteria to fully move the system out of drought management conditions, and to permit the water releases from those reservoirs to maintain fish habitat. The reservoir storage levels are the result of surprisingly high rains in May and June. “Normal” water releases should help avoid a fish kill this summer, despite the lack of a deal between New York City and Delaware basin states to solve chronic flow problems on the Delaware and its tributaries.
The three reservoirs (Cannonsville on the West Branch, Pepacton on the East Branch, and the Neversink Reservoir) provide roughly half of New York City’s water supply. Flows out of the reservoirs are currently managed to meet New York City water supplies and to meet flow requirements for downstream users in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Current flow rules are the product of an agreement signed between the Delaware Basin states in 1954 to end litigation over the river’s water. In addition, the states created an interstate compact, called the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), to help implement their agreement and to settle disputes among the five parties.
The Delaware River basin has been in “drought emergency” since December 2001 because of low reservoir levels caused by a prolonged dry period. Under a drought emergency, releases from the reservoirs are a tiny fraction of natural flows. These drought releases are insufficient to maintain aquatic health or to keep water cool for the Delaware’s wild trout fishery.
The reservoirs have filled to over 85% capacity due to spring rains, and today is the fifteenth consecutive day that the Upper Delaware reservoirs have been at more than 25 billion gallons above the drought watch level. Under DRBC rules, a small amount of water in the reservoirs is once again available to be released to maintain flows on the three Delaware River tributaries.
If unusually heavy rains in May and June had not filled the reservoirs, the water releases allowed under drought status would have resulted in fish kills this summer. Despite urging from Trout Unlimited, the Delaware River Foundation, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City had declined to allow regular conservation releases, despite refilling reservoirs, until all the technical requirements of the DRBC rules had been met.
“We completely dodged a bullet this spring,” said Jim Serio, executive director of the Delaware River Foundation. “Unusually heavy rains kept the rivers up despite tiny releases from the reservoirs. If those releases had continued through the summer, we would have lost a lot of fish. A few months ago, the chances of the reservoirs filling up enough to get out of the drought declaration before summer looked bleak, and we were very, very lucky to have gotten so much rain. Nature really saved us from human mismanagement.”
Trout Unlimited, the Delaware Foundation, and other groups contend that over the long term even the normal flow regime has impaired the health of the Upper Delaware system.
“The drought is a classic example of how New York City’s drinking water system short changes the river,” said Nat Gillespie, Trout Unlimited’s Catskills Coordinator. “Under current rules, regular conservation flows cannot resume until storage levels have been 25 billion gallons above the drought watch line for fifteen consecutive days. If reservoir levels drop to 24 billion gallons on the fourteenth day, the clock starts over; meanwhile, New York City is allowed to continue to withdraw the maximum amount of water for export downstate. The rules put fish and the ecosystem absolutely last in line.”
“These rules were created almost fifty years ago,” continued Gillespie. “They need to be changed using all of the modern conservation and water management tools available to us today. We hope the river’s narrow escape this summer will inspire the City to finally sit down with the DRBC and fix the system.”
Trout Unlimited and the Delaware Foundation are calling for New York City and the DRBC to reform its water management policy to improve the health of the river under normal and drought conditions. The DRBC recently voted to spend the next twelve months working towards a long-term solution to the flow problem. In an encouraging sign, New York City agreed to allow some water to be released to reduce water temperatures in the West Branch Delaware on June 11, one day before the rules allowed.
The Delaware River and its tributaries are critical to local economies. A 1998 study by Trout Unlimited and the American Sportfishing Association found that trout fishing in the East Branch, West Branch and main stem Delaware rivers generated almost $30 million in economic activity for Delaware County alone.
For more information: Jim Serio, Delaware River Foundation: (607) 637-3220, firstname.lastname@example.org