Dr. Peter Kolesar, professor emeritus at Columbia University, DC
Dr. Peter Kolesar, professor emeritus at Columbia University, addresses the Water Use/Resource Management Committee of the Upper Delaware Council. Its executive director, Laurie Ramie, is in the foreground. MEG McGUIRE PHOTO

So what happens if the FFMP isn’t renewed?

| March 31, 2017

DELAWARE CURRENTS asked Dr. Peter Kolesar, professor emeritus at Columbia University, to help readers understand what’s at stake if the Delaware River’s current management plan expires. First, some background: The basis of the current management plan is the Supreme Court decision of 1954. In that decision, the decree parties – New York City, New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware – could modify the ruling by unanimous agreement. Among those amendments were the 1961 Delaware Compact, the 1983 Good Faith Agreement and the 2016 Flexible Flow Management Plan. So the decree parties have recognized over the years that a certain amount of fine-tuning of that decision is in everyone’s interest. That fine tuning can only happen if all five decree parties agree. The first Flexible Flow Management Agreement was adopted in 2007 for four years. The agreement has been an annual rite since then, with changes made from year to year as circumstances change. This year’s FFMP expires on May 31. Recently there’s been some sabre rattling from New Jersey – its representatives said that the state would not agree to another year of these modifications because it wants some wholesale changes to the current system and will not agree to what it calls piecemeal changes. The agreement among the parties has to come by May 31. If it doesn’t, all the interim alterations disappear and the management plan goes back to something called Revision 1 of 1983. There’s a great big bunch of fine print when it comes to managing the river’s waters, so we asked Kolesar to help us understand what would be different. He’s a great resource for this discussion since he’s been involved with what’s called the Flexible Flow Management Plan (FFMP) since 2007 when his (and Jim Serio’s) statistical analysis helped create it. We asked him to list the top five things affected if Revision 1 returns: “First and foremost,” said Kolesar, “we’d lose what are called conservation releases.” These might not seem like a big deal if you live in the southern reaches of the Delaware but for people living in the Upper Delaware – where the river is the border between New York and Pennsylvania – it’s important. There’s not a lot of industry up there, and so big economic drivers are tourism, fishing and second homes. The conservation releases keep the fishing economy thriving. The water that is released from the three Delaware reservoirs is cold. (“Releases” are planned, and come from the bottom of the reservoir. “Spills” are overflows, not planned and arise when the reservoir is overflowing.) When the water is cold and plentiful, trout thrive. When trout thrive, anglers come from all over the eastern states, and farther, to fish. In Revision 1, no matter how much water is in the reservoirs, the release of water is set by formulae. Over time, negotiations with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection have developed release systems that have more to do with the amount of water in the reservoirs, related to the expected use of the water and what rain is expected. Hence the title of the system: Flexible Flow Management System. Clearly, the New York City DEP’s chief job is to provide water for the city, but once that requirement has been met, it has been willing to work on modifications to the original fairly static release plan, which has benefitted the trout population. “Abundant cold clear water keeps the river bed covered, ” explained Kolesar. “Fish can move when the water level falls – at least to some degree – it’s the insects that provide food for the fish that can’t move.” When the Supreme Court issued its decree in 1954, Kolesar pointed out, there was no environmental movement. The court considered New York City’s needs, Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s. “The upper river was left out. The fishing community was left out.” The second of the five changes if we revert to Revision1: The other arm of the tourist industry would be hurting – the various canoe, kayaking and raft rental companies, collectively called livery companies. Without sufficient water in the river, there’s no fun to be had. That doesn’t have to happen often for people to not come back. Remember, there are three national parks on the river. Part of the reason people visit those parks is for the river. The third change is the one that is probably the most politically charged, and that is flooding. Right now there is some attempt to minimize the risk of flooding by having the reservoirs keep what’s called a void – a less-than-full state. As part of the FFMP, the NYCDEP aims to keep its Delaware reservoirs at 90% from August 15 until March 15, then there is a slope on either side of those dates, with void goals from 90 to 100%. You’ll read in the article that accompanies this one that there is a contingent of people who live downriver who are convinced that the reservoirs contributed to the serious flooding in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Diane Tharp represents that point of view. (See accompanying article.) Kolesar disagrees. He points to a significant body of evidence that the floods were the byproduct of unusual weather: doubling up of storms and storms that “sat” on areas waterlogged from previous storms. “These floods were the product of specific storms,” Kolesar said. He explained that rather than exacerbating the problem, the reservoirs will tend to be a benefit since, even though they are spilling over the top of the dam, they are still holding back the full force of the water. It might be true that if the reservoirs were empty, they would retain water, but these are not flood-control reservoirs, they are reservoirs for drinking water. Their function is different. Kolesar said these reservoirs are low-capacity dams. They seem to be huge when you’re standing next to them, but if you look at the landscape around them, they are surrounded by hills, not mountains. The dams are not very high, and the reservoirs are designed to hold a year’s supply of water. The strategy is that the reservoirs should be full on June 1st – that’s the start of the water year. From there, the reservoirs can get quite low, but there would not be a problem with water supply unless there were two straight years when there were droughts. “One of the bedrocks for all involved is that they need to plan against the so-called drought of record, which happened in the 1960s.” Kolesar questioned that if the NYCDEP knew with some certainty that a flooding situation would arise, where do they put the water that is stored? Emptying out the reservoirs takes some time and that extra water combined with the storm is likely to increase the risk of flooding. “Studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the United States Geological Service show that in order to have a substantial downriver effect, there would have to be enormous voids in the reservoirs,” said Kolesar. And then we’re back to the purpose of the reservoirs, which isn’t flood control but water supply. Kolesar suggested that it was the outpouring of anger over the floods that reached the governors’ (of New Jersey and Pennsylvania) ears that created the political storm over the reservoirs. It became easy to blame New York and the reservoirs when it was the weather. Because floods have been devastating to many residents in the watershed, we asked the Delaware River Basin Commission to comment, since it is the entity charged with managing water quantity as well as quality. Comments from Clarke Rupert, DRBC’s  communications manager, follow this discussion with Kolesar. Fourth, New Jersey itself stands to lose if Revision 1 comes into effect. Under the FFMP, New Jersey can ignore the rules that call for a reduction in water allocation for all parties during a drought. Under Revision 1, New Jersey goes back to a reduction during drought. Kolesar believes that one of New Jersey’s goals is to continue the 100 mgd allowance all the time, regardless of drought. And it wants that modification not just in the FFMP, which is subject to renegotiation every year, but to be made a permanent part of the Delaware’s water plan. “No reduction during drought, and it’s (New Jersey) going to war on that issue,” said Kolesar. Further, says Kolesar, New Jersey wants its water allocation to be increased perhaps as high as  200 mgd to meet its needs. That’s unlikely to happen, since that amount of withdrawal would likely have an effect on the amount of water available for Philadelphia, the other large city that depends on the Delaware for water. “Essentially, New Jersey wants to substantially reduce New York City’s withdrawal, and to substantially take more water out itself,” said Kolesar. “None of the other decree parties are interested in opening up the basics, but who the heck knows,” Kolesar said, summing up some of the exasperation that many onlookers feel. Next up in the list of changes (Actually this isn’t a change, but rather a suggestion that’s been stalemated by New Jersey’s refusal to negotiate further modifications.) With no increase in releases (those conservation releases) another factor close to the anglers’ hearts is the warmth of the water. The water released from the reservoirs comes from the bottom of the reservoirs, comes out cold but gets warm when the air is warm in the summer months. Anglers want thermal releases to keep the water cold even in summer months. This is one of the more recent modifications that could be included in the FFMP, except that New Jersey has taken the position that it wants no more of piecemeal modifications to the FFMP, but an overhaul. The state suggests that the rules to guide all the water allocations should be fair apportionment, not the Supreme Court decision and subsequent modifications. Kolesar and others have been arguing for thermal releases for several years and New York City DEP, New York State DEC and PA Fish and Boat Commission have indicated support. Not surprising since this sort of fishing is mostly an Upper Delaware issue, and New Jersey by not going along with it can create some noise without harming any of its interests. Tied to the issue of releases is ramping. Instead of turning a valve from off to full on, ramping allows for the gradual increase and decrease of releases. Ramping benefits the whole river ecosystem, allowing all the insects, fish, etc. to react to more natural water increases and decreases. New Jersey vetoed that as well, said Kolesar. All this said, there’s no way of knowing if the FFMP will be agreed upon by the May 31st deadline. A person with considerable experience of the decree parties and the FFMP is the River Master, Robert Mason, and he wrote: The decree party principals are continuing their discussions.  Based on past experience, and the fact that all of the decree parties know the impacts of a failure to sign a new FFMP or to extend the current one, I think it is likely that they will reach an agreement by the deadline. Here are the comments from the Delaware River Basin Commission. It should be noted that the FFMP is the province of the decree parties, not the DRBC. Four of the decree parties are the same states that make up four members of the DRBC. From Clarke Rupert, the DRBC’s communications manager: With reference to the main stem flooding of 2004, 2005, and 2006, I would like to mention that DRBC reviewed these three storm events using a Delaware River Basin Flood Analysis Model which demonstrated that widespread river flooding would have occurred in each instance regardless of the pre-event storage condition in the upper basin reservoirs.  These findings were presented in 2009 at a public meeting held in Flemington, N.J. Also, (as regards the FFMP) the decree parties were considering flood mitigation before the FFMP and had an experimental program in place prior to the original FFMP in 2007.  Flood mitigation continues to be a subject receiving attention during their ongoing discussions and negotiations.  In the FFMP agreement that is currently in effect, as well as in prior FFMP agreements, NYC works to create a higher potential to achieve a 10 percent storage void in its Delaware Basin reservoirs from Sept. 1 to March 15, as well as an average 5 percent void from July 1 to Sept. 1 and from March 15 to May 1.  This program may help reduce peak spill rates during periods of high inflows and heavy snow melt.  A significant fraction of the snow pack present in the watershed of the NYC reservoirs is included when calculating void promotion releases in the FFMP. The addition of flood mitigation to water supply reservoirs has risk.  A review of 2001 demonstrates how quickly reservoir storage can decrease (see chart below).  In mid-April, the combined storage in the three NYC-Delaware Basin reservoirs was 102% of capacity.  Eight months later, combined storage was 23.4% of capacity, the lowest level since all three reservoirs were operational.  A mandatory year-round storage void of 10 or 20% going into the summer months of 2001 would have additionally impacted the amount of reservoir storage by the end of the year, which was already a serious situation.

As we have noted before in prior discussions, there are no easy solutions to complex issues.  This is especially true with issues relating to weather uncertainty.


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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