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Aiming at New Jersey, NYC hits the Upper Delaware

In its August 23 press release, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) announced suspension of its voluntary releases of additional water from the New York City dams on the headwaters of the Delaware above those called for in the 1983 (Revision 1) release plan. Revision 1, and its drastically reduced water releases, formally went into effect on June 1, 2017 due to New Jersey’s refusal to agree to an extension or modification of the Flexible Flow Management Program (FFMP) for water releases into the Delaware. But NYCDEP’s voluntary additional releases, which we were the first to call for in these pages, avoided the devastating consequences to the Upper Delaware’s wild trout from the low summertime river flows that would have resulted from mindlessly implementing Revision 1.

But now, per NYCDEP’s statement, the releases into the West Branch of the Delaware from the Cannonsville reservoir will drop on October 10 to only 45 cubic feet per second (cfs), and on November 1 to a paltry 33 cfs, compared to 80 cfs from October 10 to April under the FFMP, given normal reservoir conditions. At these low flows, more than half the streambed will be dewatered, endangering both the Delaware’s wild trout and the insects they feed on. If this continues into the winter, there is substantial danger of “anchor” ice forming in the river that will be destructive to the wild trout and their habitat. Particularly vulnerable will be the already laid eggs of the brown trout, which do not hatch until spring, and which typically lie in river reaches that are prone to anchor ice formation. The destruction wrought this winter could have dire impacts for years into the future.

An additional negative consequence of this release reduction by the city will be that the reservoirs, already above their normal fall storage levels, will fill even faster, and we will experience substantial spring reservoir spills with concomitant flooding danger in the Delaware River Valley. The absence of the FFMP’s spill mitigation plan under a strict implementation of Revision 1 will compound the flooding risk.

Why is this happening now? And who is the target of the city’s threat? The poor suffering trout have no voice and no votes. And the people of the Upper Delaware will be hard hit too. It has been well documented that the economy of the Upper Delaware is dependent on the vitality of the trout fishery. We must conjecture that the city’s action is directed at New Jersey, which precipitated this crisis, through the threat of additional flood risk to New Jersians who reside the Delaware’s floodplain downriver. Continuing the increased releases that have been scientifically calibrated to be prudent for water supply would do the city no harm.

So, why do this? Why now? Especially when the city’s press release ironically states that “significant progress” has been made in the negotiations for a new Delaware release policy? Once again, the Upper Delaware stands to suffer most while the Decree Party giants squabble. As the African proverb states, “When the elephants fight, it is the ants that suffer.”

[Peter Kolesar is a Columbia University professor emeritus, and participated in the development of the math behind the current FFMP, as well as advocacy for it.]


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