river- 4 DC

Meet Jennifer Garigliano: “Do you know me? I’m not a quiet person.”
The new president of the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin

| June 8, 2021

The Delaware River is 330 miles long, but only if you don’t include the two branches that snake into New York. 

Understanding the whole river from its sources to where it empties into the Atlantic is the goal of the new president of the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin (more on that and why it’s important in a minute).

Its new president, Jennifer Garigliano, has been working in New York City’s water supply system for almost nine years. She’s chief of staff to Paul Rush, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Water Supply, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection.

So she knows a thing or two about that massive water system. She’s also been charged with the bureau’s policy surrounding the releases from the three Delaware River reservoirs into the Delaware River — Pepacton, Cannonsville and Neversink.

She’s been the point person in the on-going discussions of those releases in the Regulated Flow Advisory Committee, a special advisory committee housed, if you will, with the Delaware River Basin Commission. 

The RFAC is very focused on those releases and ensuring that the upper river’s ecosystem is not adversely affected by what is a very complicated system of releases. 

The RFAC includes representatives from the New York City DEP — that’s Garigliano — but because New York City DEP isn’t one of the members of the original compact that created the DRBC, the RFAC can’t be exactly like the other advisory committees. (Are you keeping up with all the groups and acronyms?)

It’s mostly because of that quirk in how the DRBC was set up (that NYC isn’t part of the DRBC) that New York City DEP joined the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin back when it was created in 1959, as it offered, Garigliano explained, a way to be involved with the watershed.

 “NYCDEP plays a critical role in the watershed,” she said. “We discovered WRADRB and it met our needs to be involved in the watershed. It’s unique since it’s the only stakeholder group that actually represents the water users.”

According to its website, the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin (WRA) was established in 1959 by representatives from industry, public and private utilities and other organizations that had wide-ranging interests in water resources and sought to ensure public participation in the management of the Delaware River and its tributaries. Its membership is a who’s who of significant players in the river’s water issues. You can check them out here.

The WRADRB has kept a pretty low profile in the watershed, but that looks likely to change with Garigliano at the helm.

“Do you know me?” she asked with a laugh. “I’m not a quiet person.”

She very much expects the WRADRB to be involved in all the conversations about how the river is used. Notably, Garigliano is the first person from NYCDEP to be in a leadership role in WRADRB.

And why now? She said it’s about time.

She’s very direct about it. She’s seen what you might call a rift between the upper basin and the lower basin — from her perspective the two don’t understand how important they are to each other.

She’s been active on “whole basin” issues for about five years, and the biggest thing she’s learned is that “there’s a disconnect between the upper basin and the lower basin.”

“My goal (as president of WRADRB) is to heal this rift between the two,” she said.

In a nutshell, the whole watershed needs to understand more about the whole watershed: “What happens in the upper basin affects the lower, and vice versa.”

From her perspective, the biggest basin issues are the competing interests, “everybody’s using this river, but the interests don’t line up easily.

“For example, fishing is at odds with flooding and the problem is the inability of groups to talk to each other and work towards compromise.

“Nothing is going to be perfect, but if we fail to compromise, the problems are only going to get bigger.”

She noted that in the era of climate change, we’ll have more water when there’s water — think floods — and less water when there’s less — think droughts.

“We all have to be on board and find the best solution,”she said.

A prime example of the tension is the heated conversations about the investigation of how the F .E. Walter Dam reservoir (which is run by the United States Army Corps of Engineers) might help the lower basin deal with droughts.

One of the biggest ways the upper and lower basins are connected is that New York City’s reservoirs have become responsible for keeping the salt front (from the ocean pushing up the river) away from the drinking water intakes of Philadelphia — salt water would break its water system.

“During the next drought of record, New York City reservoirs will not have enough water to push that salt front back and meet the demands on its water supply from New York City users,” she explained.

“If the corps executed a slight change to its existing operating procedure, that reservoir water could help Philadelphia,” she said.

Her hope is that the corps and the Bureau of Water Supply could develop different scenarios as part of this reevaluation, which will be shared with the people of the Lehigh Valley who are very concerned about what they see as New York City bigfooting in their water system. 

For more on those tensions, check here.

Garigliano would say that we can’t afford to focus on individual water systems, whether it’s the NYC reservoirs, the Lehigh River or the Schuykill River as separate from each other — it’s all one water system.

She is, not surprisingly, a big fan of what she sees as the greater flexibility that the Bureau of Water Supply has demonstrated over the past 20 years.

“We run a forecast-informed operation,” she explained, which means that it is constantly looking at all the variables: runoff, what weather can be expected — as rain or snow or snow melt. It works with the National Weather Service to determine how much water is coming into the system and how much is needed.

“All the data helps us understand how much we can release,” she said and points out that the corps is already operating a forecast-informed system in the South Pacific area — some or all of seven states in the Southwest.

“If we could adopt that in the Philadelphia region, that would be a big boost to the water system.

“They would start storing water earlier. With more water available, they likely could release more water for the benefit of the anglers as well as the various recreational activities.

“If they had more water, the forecasting would give them enough time to evacuate the extra water so it could still serve its primary function as a flood-control dam.”

Part of the misunderstanding between the upper and lower basins lies in the vast area that the Delaware River watershed encompasses. It’s not just that NYC is responsible for the water supply for Philadelphia, 300-plus miles away, but the actual acreage in the watershed is enormous. In all, it contains 13,539 square miles, including the 782-square-mile Delaware Bay. (The watershed is bigger than the state of Maryland.)

Each end of the basin can be experiencing different weather. Snow, for example, can stay on the ground in the upper basin, while precipitation in the south can be rain, which runs off.

And the different reservoirs can have different responsibilities, some are charged with flood control, others are responsible for drinking water. There’s one, Merrill Creek in Warren County, N.J., that was built specifically to supply water to the river when there are drought conditions and the power companies still need water.

“Our reservoirs are not flood-control reservoirs. Their purpose is to supply drinking water for New York City. But with the forecast-informed system, we can really look at storage and can operate at a slightly higher risk, using science to help address stakeholder groups’ concerns,” she explained, offering the New York City system as an example of a way to improve the whole watershed’s response to both flooding and drought.

Responding to various stakeholder groups is part of her job at NYC’s Bureau of Water Supply.

In the upper basin, there’s an almost constant demand for more water to be released to insure prime habitat for cold-water loving trout.

In the lower basin, the demand is for NYC to keep what is called a “void” in the reservoirs to allow them to capture the extra water that they see as a flooding threat. But if they reduce the water held in the reservoirs, there won’t be enough water to release to keep cold-water fish happy during the warmest parts of the year.

It’s a balancing act: Who wants how much water when? That seems to be the theme of most of the concerns. There’s also some tension between the parts of New York State that are in New York City’s watershed and those that are nearby, but not part of the watershed.

NYCDEP spends a considerable amount of time and attention on its watershed ensuring not just that there’s enough quantity but also that the quality of the water stays high. 

In fact, it’s almost as if there are two states, inside and outside NYC’s watershed.

Garigliano doesn’t deny it.

“Our response is that the water supply is funded by the ratepayers of New York City. We have a responsibility to those ratepayers to use their money to improve the water supply — anything directly related to the water supply. Outside of that we would not spend ratepayers’ money.”

It’s all a balancing act, and often any one side might be unhappy.

Garigliano is up for the challenge.

 “My involvement with the WRADRB is to bring people together who need to work together.”

Stakeholders weigh in on Garigliano’s appointment

“On behalf of the Delaware River Basin Commission, I would like to offer congratulations and extend our best wishes to Jen Garigliano as the new President of the Water Resources Association of the Delaware River Basin (WRADRB).

“The WRADRB and its members have a long and successful history of representing the interests of water users throughout the basin. Jen’s leadership and extensive water industry experience will serve the association and its members well, and we look forward to working with her, the WRADRB and all basin stakeholders to meet our shared water resource goals.”

 — Steve Tambini, executive director of DRBC

“It is wonderful to have someone as President of WRA who lives in the upper part of the basin and whose work involves management of the largest reservoir system in the Delaware River Basin.

“Her work involves, among other things, protecting water quality in those reservoirs and in the entire upper part of the basin. Jen brings solid management skills, an amiable style, and broad knowledge and perspective to her new role as President of WRA. I am looking forward to working with her on the Board.”

— Preston Luitweiler, past chair of the WRA board

“WRA is thrilled to have Jen Garigliano as the next board president.

“She has proven to be a unifying force in the basin, synthesizing the work and goals of a constellation of experts. With her help we will be able to better confront and resolve the issues that now threaten the integrity of the Delaware River Water Basin.” 

— said Skelly Holmbeck, executive director of WRADRB

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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