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December 09, 2016
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Laying blame in the wrong place

The Upper Delaware Council (UDC) recently sent a letter to the DRBC supporting the adoption of certain alterations in the existing Flexible Flow Management Plan (FFMP) governing releases from the New York City reservoirs to the Delaware River. The alterations are embodied in a white paper issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Fish, Wildlife & Marine Resources and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Bureau of Fisheries. The paper describes a flow management system that adopts the same structural principles as the current FFMP, but has more water—the equivalent of about 90 million gallons per day (mgd)—to play around with.

Despite the UDC letter, however, there continues to be talk behind the scenes—both on the council and elsewhere—that when the FFMP comes up for review this May, the DRBC should simply fail to renew it in any form. That would throw us back to the water-release regime that immediately followed the original 1954 Supreme Court Decree. As far as the wellbeing of our coldwater fishery is concerned, that would be a jump out of the frying pan into the fire. We think that the FFMP is getting a bad rap, and that we need to be clear about the real culprits for our problems if the health of the river and our fisheries are to be preserved.

We do understand why people are complaining about current conditions. There was a lengthy period last summer during which river temperatures at Callicoon reached about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the lethal level for trout. There were problems with water levels as well.

But the real question is not how bad last summer was, but how bad last summer was under the FFMP, compared to how bad it would have been under other flow management regimes. That’s because last summer was the hottest summer on record, and while the FFMP failed to preserve coldwater conditions in the upper main stem, any of the systems that preceded it would have done much worse.

For instance, releases in June under the system immediately preceding the FFMP would have been 160 cfs, compared to 325 cfs for the FFMP. The water would have been even hotter, and for a longer time. And what would minimum releases have been in June under the original decree, which some FFMP critics are so eager to return to? Somewhere between 0 and 23 cfs.

In order to avert the thermal crises that happened last summer, we would have needed more water. A lot more water. That’s why the UDC letter advocates for the white paper, which provides for the largest amount of water to work with of any of the alternatives currently before the DRBC.

But let’s face facts. It’s not clear that even the amount of water available in the white paper would maintain the coldwater fishery as far south as Callicoon in summers as hot as last year’s. And according to climate-change theory, while there will be occasional cooler summers ahead, the trend will be for increasing heat.

All of this is not to say that we have to give up or do nothing. But we need to stop scapegoating the FFMP, which is a system for optimizing the deployment of a given quantity of water, not the thing that determines what that quantity is. Knowing that blame should be laid, instead, on the combination of a changing climate and an inadequate annual water allocation is the first step toward deciding the most sensible way to proceed.

More water needs to be made available for minimum conservation releases, and we think that conditions in the Upper Delaware last summer and the expectation of hotter summers ahead are points that should be used at the DRBC bargaining table to try and secure it. If that fails, we also think that a legal challenge requesting the Supreme Court to review the current water allocation system, which lets New York City hoard portions of the 800 mgd limit originally granted it, even though it is only using about 550 mgd, is worth exploring. But to refuse to renew the FFMP and “go back to the decree” makes no sense at all.

Finally, we need to face the possibility that a shrinkage in the coldwater fishery may be an inevitable concomitant of global warming. It’s possible, in fact, that even if every drop of water not being actually consumed by NYC were available for river releases, the coldwater fishery might, at some point, have to retreat up the main stem. Climate change is real; it’s here to stay, and it’s going to show up with increasing frequency in our own backyard. Sadly, our coldwater fishery may just be our canary in the coalmine.