West Branch of the Delaware DC
West Branch of the Delaware River, below the Cannonsville Reservoir, one of the reservoirs affected by the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Editorial report: NYCDEP recovers from fumbled community outreach about Delaware Aqueduct shutdown

| June 15, 2023

Can you hear me now?

So goes the line from the old Verizon Wireless commercials but it could easily be the question that the New York City Department of Environmental Protection is asking now, a year after its chaotic and inadequate community outreach efforts about plans to shut down and fix the leaky Delaware Aqueduct.

To its credit, the DEP seems to have learned a lesson from its botched communications and is setting out to make sure that the public and community stakeholders are well informed about the shutdown, which is planned for the fall.

But such robust communications were certainly not the case last year. And we’re coming up on the anniversary of when the NYCDEP decided it could not shut down the aqueduct and would postpone the shutdown until this year.

Possibly the biggest fumble of all happened as “someone” decided that the best way to disseminate this news — of vital interest to the upriver communities — was to talk only to the Associated Press. 

Few of the stalwart upriver news organizations are AP subscribers. After all, it costs a pretty penny to be a part of that organization. I know because when I was managing editor of a sizable newspaper, we groaned at the cost and tried to figure out how to cut those costs.

So, how were these communities going to find out? “Someone” showed some ignorance of the concerns of the upper river and, in the process, sowed yet more seeds of confusion and likely, mistrust.

Let’s recap:

In the largest and most complex repair in the 180-year history of New York City’s municipal water supply, the DEP planned last year to shut part of the Delaware Aqueduct to repair a 20-year-old significant leak under the Hudson River.

A detailed environmental impact statement was completed about the project but that was in 2017 and concerns were being raised about how depleted the reservoirs would be and how the DEP would look to mitigate worries about potential flooding, among other issues.

Considering how far-reaching this project is and how much time the DEP has spent on it, you would have thought that the department would have made it a point to go out of its way to keep communities apprised of what was coming.

The DEP did presentations to a committee of the Delaware River Basin Commission in March 2022 but it did not engage in the kind of grassroots communications and retail politics that would have reached deeper into communities.

The DEP already has a reputation for bigfooting on localities in the Catskills of New York when it comes to matters of protecting the reservoirs. Despite improving relations between it and the upper river towns, its lack of outreach last year about the shutdown undermined that improvement.

Delaware Currents sent public records requests to 17 counties and localities that might be affected by the shutdown, seeking correspondences to or from the DEP from March 1, 2022, through March 1, 2023, that detailed any discussions about the shutdown and/or its potential effects, such as flooding, or about the shutdown being delayed.

The bottom line: Of the 14 who responded, only three had any records — sort of.

Those records consisted of summaries of a presentation by the DEP at an Upper Delaware Council meeting on April 7, 2022, and the other was a summary provided by the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters Coalition.

But there were no records of outreach directly from the DEP to local government stakeholders.

Then, just two months after the UDC presentation, the DEP decided to delay the shutdown. 

This announcement was a wait-what-just-happened moment in which DEP again did not directly inform any government entities about the delay, public records show.

As mentioned, the DEP delivered the news solely to the Associated Press but without issuing any formal news release or announcement. That confusion was even reflected in internal DEP communications.

On June 9, 2022, Ed Rodgers of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network emailed DEP’s Jennifer Garigliano and asked: “I understand NYCDEP has announced the postponement of the Delaware Aqueduct shutdown,” adding: “Is that accurate? Is there a statement from the department?”

You could almost hear the head-scratching in the email brought on by the lack of any notice.

When Garigliano forwarded the note to the DEP press office, spokesman Edward Timbers replied: “I can handle. Have had a few others like this today.”

“A few others”? Yes, to be sure.

Many of those invested in the shutdown learned the news of the delay via Jeff Skelding of the Friends of the Upper Delaware, who circulated a one-paragraph statement from the DEP.

A mere week before the shutdown delay was announced, Skelding was quoted in an article at The River Newsroom urging the city to be open and transparent.

The article said: “Skelding is hoping for the best but he says many people in the Upper Delaware aren’t aware that the shutdown is coming. He’s advocating for robust public outreach from the DEP.”

It seems the DEP has recovered from its fumbled communications and is now engaged in the kind of robust outreach that was lacking last year.

Since March, it’s held multiple public information sessions, including ones in Hancock, N.Y., at the UDC, with the Delaware River Basin Commission and at a forum hosted by State Senate Environmental Committee that reached municipal leaders throughout the Croton watershed.

This is the kind of expansive information campaign that helps to build trust and bridges with communities that have inextricable ties to the DEP.

To be sure, questions persist about what will happen with the shutdown but at least the DEP is making a concerted effort to provide answers.

As the go/no-go decision point is nearing, we’re hoping the NYCDEP can continue on its current path of transparency 

Yes, New York City DEP, we can hear you now.

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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