New alliance seeks to amplify Upper Delaware River voices

| February 18, 2021

Upper Delaware River looking upstream between Pike County, Pa. and Sullivan County, N.Y. PHOTO BY REBECCA SMITH
Upper Delaware River looking upstream between Pike County, Pa. and Sullivan County, N.Y. PHOTO BY REBECCA SMITH

Political boundaries of cities, states and counties mean little to a watershed — especially the politically complicated Delaware River watershed.

But getting things done usually requires political collaborations across those boundaries to amplify “smaller” voices.

The Friends of the Upper Delaware River (fudr.org) have reached out to conservation-minded organizations that are invested in the protection of the upper river watershed and joined with the New York League of Conservation Voters and the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed to create the Alliance for the Upper Delaware River Watershed.

In the upper river — from Hancock to Port Jervis, N.Y. — the section of watershed that encompasses it in New York State spreads through most of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, and a bit of Orange County (thanks mostly to the Neversink River running south through Port Jervis).

The whole upper Delaware River watershed in New York is actually divided into two parts: a significant part of it is the New York City watershed created by the three NYC reservoirs: Cannonsville Reservoir, created by damming the West Branch of the Delaware River; Pepacton Reservoir, created by damming the East Branch of the Delaware River; and the Neversink Reservoir, created by damming the Neversink.

New York City takes good care of its watershed — the cleaner the water in the reservoirs, the less treatment is needed — but often the “other” part of the watershed has a less significant function and can be forgotten. 

“It’s a no-man’s land,” said Laurie Ramie, executive director of the Upper Delaware Council, (UDC.org) another member of the Alliance. The UDC represents eight river towns in New York as well as five towns in Pennsylvania.

Building coalitions

Getting those New York towns out of “no-man’s land” is a mission of Jeff Skelding, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River. FUDR was once mostly a trout-fishing organization, and still is, of course, but Skelding has expanded its mission to include creating a collaboration with the communities below the New York City reservoirs, where the “tailwaters” of the reservoirs flow into the main stem Delaware. He helped initiate — with Delaware County — discussions that led to the creation of the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters Coalition, a handful of towns that banded together to begin to amplify their voices, including the Town and Village of Hancock; the Town and Village of Deposit; Town of Sanford and Town of Colchester.

The first success story of the coalition was the Stream Corridor Management Plan in 2018

The next, which built on that management plan, in 2019: 14 grants totaling $1.2 million in federal money through the Delaware Watershed Conservation Fund for projects in those tailwater towns. Here’s a story: U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado promises support for a Delaware River Congressional caucus

“Politics follows boundaries and political power follows political boundaries,” summarized Skelding.

And now the Alliance for the Upper Delaware River Watershed, which broadens the focus to include Sullivan and Orange Counties.

Politics follows boundaries and political power follows political boundaries.

Jeff Skelding, executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware

“We want to bring attention to this particular watershed,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “We need to heighten awareness.”

The NYLCV is a state-wide organization, she said, its mission is to educate the public, especially about water quality.

The Delaware River matters

New York City residents are — maybe — aware that their water comes from somewhere “up north, north of Yonkers,” Tighe said, ruefully. And it’s NYLCV’s hope to educate them and the rest of New York State about how important this under-served area is.

“We need to make sure that people know how much hiking, canoeing, camping, fishing and hunting really contribute to the local and state economy,” she said, “both for New York and Pennsylvania.”

Tighe was formerly the chief of staff for New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, and clearly in a position to bang the drum about issues for the Upper Delaware.

“We know a lot of elected officials and state and federal politicians,” speaking on behalf of NYLCV. Tighe and her allies have their eyes on the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which was created by the state legislature in 1993, the fund is financed primarily through a dedicated portion of real estate transfer taxes. 

Skelding explained that one of the chief goals for the Alliance is to get a line item in New York State’s 2021 budget. The Alliance didn’t get into New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget that came out in January but Skelding said that they would be engaged in the state’s legislative process as legislators work to finalize the budget by the end of March.

Tighe pointed out the other watersheds have received money through the fund, like the Hudson River estuary, the Mohawk River estuary and regular funding for Lake Erie.

“But it hasn’t been tapped for the Delaware River watershed,” Tighe said.

Initial efforts to win support in the region have created partnerships with the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Upper Delaware Council, itself the creation of a collaboration among local, state and federal governments and agencies to manage the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River.

Upper Delaware Council has funding issues, too

Ramie and the Upper Delaware Council are eager to amplify the voice of the Upper River because of its own funding problems with both states (New York and Pennsylvania have never given the UDC the funds promised) and with funding difficulties from the feds. But, right now, they are focused on getting the attention and support of the governor and the state’s legislators to achieve more support for the Upper Delaware via the Environmental Protection Fund and for the Delaware River Basin Commission.

A sign-on letter

Kimberly Witt, Mid-Atlantic policy manager for the Appalachian Mountain Club, another member of the Alliance, suggested people might want to read a recent sign-on letter sent out to members of all these organizations that outlines what they’re looking for, though the petition is now closed:

Value the Upper Delaware River Region! | Green Actions

She outlined two things asked for in the letter sent to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senator Todd Kaminsky, Assemblyman Steve Englebright and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther: 

  1. Upper Delaware River support through the NYS Environmental Protection Fund.
  2. Full NYS funding for the Delaware River Basin Commission

Witt explained that the AMC operates at the federal level, as well as locally, and has partnered with the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed to seek full federal funding.

There’s clearly some “amplification” for what once were “smaller” voices.

Tighe outlined what sorts of projects would be eligible if Environmental Protection Fund support comes through: Habitat restoration, stream bank restoration and enlarging recreational opportunities.

She pointed out, that as someone raised in this part of the state in Bethel, N.Y., she knows that people and businesses need economic support.

For example, it’s well-known that there is premier trout fishing in the East Branch, she said, but if we created more access, there would be more places to fish, and people wouldn’t be all congregated together, and that would be good for the local economy.

Another big issue, especially as the effects of climate change bring more water — mitigating flooding.

“This part of the Delaware is a beautiful place,” she said. 

“We need to do everything we can to keep it that way,” said Tighe. “It’s less expensive to maintain it as it is, rather than have to pay to clean it up.”

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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