Gov. Cuomo, Mayor Di Blasio: Time to find the right flow for the Delaware

WHEN YOU VISIT THE DELAWARE RIVER, or any river, you hardly notice that it moves. In fact you'd notice it a lot more if it wasn't moving. The sweet flowing waters of rivers gives them their distinctive music.

That's true of the Delaware of course, but there's some hidden cacophony in its flow.

Years ago, when New York City needed water, it built reservoirs north of the city and then west of the Hudson. The last of the 19 reservoirs that the city built captures water from the upper branches of the Delaware.

Once those reservoirs were built, downstream states became concerned that NYC might drink the Delaware dry, and after lots of negotiations, and a Supreme Court ruling, a compact was signed by the four states that border the Delaware: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The official representative of each state is its governor, although they usually appoint a representative. The federal government was represented by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In the Supreme Court decree that settled the squabbling, New York City has to ensure an adequate flow of water downstream in addition to its responsibilities for water for its citizens.

Cities and towns all along the Delaware depend on the river, its tributaries and aquifers for their drinking water too.

Even before those reservoirs were built, the branches of the Upper Delaware was quietly famous in trout-fishing circles for its fish. It was cold water that ran out of the Catskills, and trout like cold water.

Because of that decree, and the dependability of a certain flow, the sport-fishing business grew and became a bright spot in the rather dismal economic status of the upper river towns. In addition, canoeing, kayaking and rafting on the river becomes possible when there's enough water in the river.


Seepage triggers release

OK. That's the backdrop. Then last July, when a company hired by the city to determine the feasibility of a hydroelectric plant on the Cannonsville dam drilled into the dirt below the dam, something unexpected happened.

The normal seepage of water from a dam that happens — and is expected — became "dirty." In the language of water experts: a turbid discharge instead of normal seepage. When the dam is made of earth, soil suspended in water leaking from the dam can indicate a problem. Is the soil in that water coming from the earth that is the dam itself?

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection did not sit on its hands, but went into full-scale alert mode even as it insisted that the problem was likely not with the dam, but from a deeper source of water, a nearby small natural spring running underneath the dam.

Taking no chances, it began a steady release of water from the dam downstream as well as calling on experts to evaluate the situation. Also out of an abundance of caution, it alerted all downstream towns of the problem and in public meetings all over the upper Delaware, showed inundation maps that outlined the dire consequences of a dam break.

And dire it would be — the 95.7 billion gallons of water (at full capacity) would rush out and in very short order houses and bridges would be washed away. The loss of life and property indicated by the speed and force of the water was plenty scary, and came pretty far down the river, reaching to Trenton. Those inundation maps are still available (and still scary).

OK. At the same time, and for quite some time, the towns in the upper Delaware, joined by avid fisherfolk such as Trout Unlimited, were looking for ways to increase the flow of cold water from the dams — to increase the number of trout, and to increase the economic opportunity that more fishing would bring. Note, it's not just an increase in the amount of water, though that's important, the community was looking for ways to protect the trout by keeping the water cool through the summer months.

The folks in charge of the dams seemed pretty deaf to their requests. One of the most important organizations on the river is the Delaware River Basin Commission, created out of the Supreme Court decree to help the states arbitrate the use of the river.

The disgruntled fisherfolk and the towns brought their pleas for more water to the DRBC, and so far, there's been no change. At least none that we know of. There are really two governing bodies for the Delaware: the decree parties and the DRBC. We know more about what the DRBC is doing than any of the decree parties. So New York could be considering changes, and that could be behind closed doors.

Water lost

Back to the dam — by this point there are lots of agencies involved.

Safety forced the New York CityDepartment of Environmental Protection, and specifically its Bureau of Water Supply, to release much more water than usual, in order to lessen the amount of water that would be released if there were in fact a dam break. In addition to the increase in water released, it also increased drinking water diversion, so that a larger-than-usual proportion of the drinking water needed by New York City was taken from Cannonsville.

While the people of the Upper Delaware held their collective breath, the boreholes were plugged, the federal representatives pronounced the danger as passed, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It should be noted that the city water folk kept a watchful eye on the site even after it was pronounced safe. They should be congratulated for their prompt action.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. Once the danger was passed, those folks who were asking for more water realized that the dam was emptied faster than anyone would usually want, and lots of water was "lost" downriver. Even so, the folks responsible for New York City's water were always quick to reassure everyone that despite the release of so much water, they still had plenty to quench the city's thirst.

This meant — to the "more water, please" people — that the city could easily satisfy the city's thirst AND release the small amount more of water that they were asking for.

In the meantime, after the dam was fixed, in October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $5 million Catskills tourism campaign, which rightfully recognizes both the stunning natural beauty of the area as well as the economic value of tourism to this part of the world.

On the website launched that same day there are various itineraries suggested for travelers: among them a fishing tour of Sullivan County entitled "Why the Catskils are famous for fly-fishing."

Do you see the disconnect? While fishing communities are asking for help to strengthen fishing, (and boating) and the governor is touting the great fishing to be had — New York City's Department of Environmental Conservation seems to be holding its hands over its ears. "Not listening, not listening."

Not to find fault — after all it is fulfilling the mission they are charged with: satisfying New York City's demand for water. And more, over the years it has worked on conservation methods that have diminished that demand for water. But that begs the question again: If New York City doesn't need all the water in all its reservoirs ...

Since New York could change the amount of water coming out of the reservoirs and make people from the Upper Delaware happy, the only real obstacle might be the somewhat contentious relationship between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill Di Blasio, who controls New York City's Department of Environmental Protection (the department in charge of the reservoirs). Between them, they could undam the wall that seems to exist between the state's bright plans for the Upper Delaware and the city's intransigence over the amount of water it needs to keep on hand.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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