The argument about who gets how much Delaware River water continues

NEW YORK CITY HAS announced that it's going to cut the voluntary extra releases of water to the Delaware it has made over the summer and that announcement has refocused attention on the failure of the four states bordering the river, and New York City, to reach an agreement on who gets how much water from the river.

"We knew that the voluntary releases were a temporary short-term solution," said Adam Bosch, director of public affairs for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. "We didn't want to see a drop in river flows as thousands of visitors were coming to the region."

"Negotiations are going really well," he added. "We're pretty close to an agreement."

Up to this point it seemed it was a two-way argument between New Jersey and New York City's Department of Environmental Protection: NYCDEP had the water that New Jersey wanted more of. New York State has had an active interest as well, since it promotes tourism in the Upper Delaware as a way to foster economic growth in the region.

But sources close to the conversations among the interested parties say that Pennsylvania may be adding its voice. Stands to reason, its border with the Delaware is the longest of them all. And then, of course, there's Philadelphia and its need for water.

Fifteen million people depend on the waters of the Delaware so the interstate argument is anything but abstract, but the details can be mind-numbing.

The under-the-radar water wars have been going on for years, which is why the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in first in 1931 and then in1954 to give the broad underpinnings to the water distribution plan for the Delaware. In essence the 1954 decree allows New York City to dam the Delaware River's headwaters into reservoirs, with the stipulation that the flow of the river is maintained at a certain rate in Montague, N. J.

Alterations and amendments to the Supreme Court decree are allowed with the unanimous consent of all the decree parties: New York State, New York City, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Something called the Flexible Flow Management Program was devised and was regularly updated to increase water releases in line with various new developments, most especially the concern to increase trout fishing and tourism in the economically challenged upper river in New York.

New Jersey refused to agree to the last FFMP, so the agreement expired on June 1.

To understand why Pennsylvania might be active in these conversations about water distribution, we have to go back to that Supreme Court decree.

In it the Supreme Court implies that New Jersey will be building reservoirs "to store waters of the Delaware." There's no command in the decree that New Jersey has to do it. It does indicate that N.J. has some responsibility toward quantity of water in the river.

New Jersey has never built such reservoirs. The water that New Jersey "takes" from the Delaware is via the Delaware and Raritan Canal. New Jersey's current Water Plan, still in draft form, makes no provisions for any storage of Delaware River water but continues to plan on using the water via the Delaware and Raritan Canal. In that plan New Jersey acknowledges the current argument but insists that raising the amount of water that New Jersey can withdraw from the Delaware during a drought is essential. That's the nub of the roadblock to agreement among the parties.

In fact it's even more arcane.

New Jersey, by means of the Flexible Flow Management Program, has access to more water during times of drought. But that's only in the FFMP, and New Jersey wants that increase made more binding on all parties. Oddly, the document that gave it the amount of water it wanted – the FFMP– was abruptly shut down because New Jersey wants a more binding version.

New Jersey's only reservoir that adds water to the Delaware – needed when the waters of the river are low to repel the salt line from creeping towards Philadelphia's water intake – is the Merrill Creek reservoir. Its basic purpose is to provide stored water that can be released to the Delaware River to make up for the evaporative water usage at certain electric generating units in times of low flow in the river.

It's not used to bolster the waters of the Delaware as other Pennsylvania reservoirs are.

Pennsylvania could be tired of New Jersey's desire to suck water from the river when it needs it, but yet has no plan to give water back when the river (think Philadelphia and the salt line) needs it.

The end of this summer's voluntary releases spells trouble for the trout, which need lots of cold, clear water to thrive and the fall is when brown trout spawn. Less water will likely make it difficult for them to access the small streams that they favor.

"Our focus is on the voluntary releases," said Jeff Skelding, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware. New York will lower water releases in two steps. The first reduction in flow happens on Sept. 5. The second, more drastic, happens on Oct. 15. It's a reduction to what's called Rev. 1 with little safeguards for trout.

"We want to protect the river,"said Skelding. "They tell us they've got a plan, but no one is telling us what the plan is."

Down-river concerns about flooding were addressed in the FFMP by keeping a 10% void in the reservoirs at certain times of the year. That too has disappeared.

It should be noted that all parties to these conversations are quite tight-lipped about them, and any analysis is based on the age-old tradition of reading the tea leaves.

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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