A view of the Delaware River. Water usage from the river's reservoirs comes up for renewal at the end of May. DC
A view of the Delaware River. Water usage from the river's reservoirs comes up for renewal at the end of May.MEG McGUIRE PHOTO

NJ is ready to rumble for more water from NYC’s Delaware reservoirs

| March 2, 2017


WATER WARS ARE MORE a matter of course out West, but one is brewing here in the Delaware basin, and the weaponry are charts, data streams and competing modeling systems.

No one is saying this out loud, but the heart of the matter is that New Jersey wants more water out of the Delaware and is looking for allies — either the other downriver states or citizens who it can convince to join the fight.

Squabbling among the states was more common in the days before the Supreme Court Decree of 1954 which allowed New York City to divert 800 million gallons per day on average from the headwaters of the Delaware, as long as the flow of water from the reservoirs met a minimum flow of 1,750 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Montague, N.J.

Those are the twin “first principals” of the decree, which have been modified by agreement among the five decree parties: that’s the four states and New York City. That modification process has been up and running since 2007 and is known as the Flexible Flow Management Plan. It has come up for renewal yearly since 2011. This year’s FFMP expires on May 31.

A short list of the often competing interests managed in the FFMP include: managing drought, water quality, modifying releases from the reservoirs for habitat protection, flood mitigation, and using the flow of water to keep the ocean’s salt water from creeping up river.

Most of the prep work for the FFMP is done behind closed doors by the members of its advisory committee, which includes representatives of the four states and New York City as well as representatives from the City of Philadelphia, the Delaware River Master and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The decree parties (four states and NYC) make the ultimate decision. And because of the Supreme Court decree, the decision has to be unanimous.

Discussions and possible disagreements continue behind closed doors among the various representatives — sometimes through the Regulated Flow Advisory Committee. And a united front is usually presented when in public. That changed last year when New Jersey suggested a new modeling system for New York City diversions that included all the the city’s reservoirs. But even last year, the sense was that the RFAC was prepared for New Jersey’s stand.

This year was different.

First, a statement was read by the current chair, Brenan Tarrier, of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

One of the key phrases in the statement was “The Parties are still negotiating the terms of the upcoming FFMP,” which was not unexpected. Up to that point, the meeting was pretty routine.

Then a separate statement was read for New Jersey by Steve Domber, from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

It repeated New Jersey’s desire for a complete overhaul of the water regulating system, which New Jersey has previously proposed, and after reading a list of seven demands about how the next FFMP should be devised, Domber said:

“At this time NJ is not able commit to a one-year extension of the current FFMP, as other options are being more seriously considered if reform is not achievable.”

A clear line in the sand was drawn by New Jersey, which has been frustrated by the lack of action on its revisions to the water system.

“This is the first time decree parties are hearing this,” said Stefanie J. Baxter, from the Delaware Geological Society, amid the general hubbub that followed the statement. “The principals have monthly phone calls,” she added, “it’s not common for us to be blindsided like this.”

Joseph Miri, also from NJDEP, added that “the statement today was an effort to get some movement — principal to principal or public to principal.”

New Jersey’s surprise announcement was clearly an attempt to win public support for its position, which isn’t new. New Jersey wants to change one of those first principals — that New York City is entitled to divert 800 million gallons a day from the three tributaries of the Delaware.

New Jersey wants New York City (which is one of the decree parties but not on the Delaware River Basin Commission) to base its diversions on the amount of water in the whole New York City reservoir system, which includes the Catskill reservoirs and the Croton system, east of the Hudson River, and limit diversions from the Delaware to what it needs, not what it is entitled to. New York City has over many years run a water conservation program that has reaped significant results — despite a population increase, water demands have decreased, which led to New Jersey’s interest.

New York has made it very clear in the past that it is not interested in New Jersey meddling in its water supply system. Its first job, in fact its only job, is to supply water to New York City and to release water according to the Supreme Court Decree.

“New Jersey did it again,” said Peter Kolesar, from the Columbia University Water Center, who was at the meeting to once again urge the decree parties to consider the upper river’s trout-fishing industry. He spoke at this meeting and previous meetings about how low-water flow damages the trout habitat, vital to the economic life of communities in the mostly rural area of the reservoirs’ tail waters.

If the FFMP is not renewed, a reservoir management plan called Revision 1 comes back into play and reverts the whole water supply system back to before the FFMP’s modifications that benefit all users of the river.

“Revision 1 is not an option,” said Garth Pettinger, from Trout Unlimited. “Revision 1 is an insult.”

Jeff Skelding, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware, said that with 6 one-year extensions to the FFMP, the FUDR is frustrated with the lack of more long-range planning. “Communication is happening, but outcomes are lacking.”

In a follow-up newsletter to its members, the FUDR said “while Revision 1 is completely unacceptable as an outcome come May 31, it may take this type of action (the N.J. statement) to create a breakthrough for a negotiation process that is thoroughly dysfunctional and at a complete standstill.”

Meg McGuire

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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