The Battle Over Water on the Upper Delaware
MAY 26, 2017
HANCOCK, N.Y. — Four years ago, I traded a job in a big, noisy office in Washington, D.C., for one in a little storefront on the main drag of a town on the banks of the Upper Delaware River in the Catskills. My new job included protecting one of the finest wild trout fisheries on the East Coast, but I didn’t start by meeting lawmakers and writing letters and rallying support. That came later. First, I fished.
For two full months in the spring of 2013, I waded and floated the river, fishing for wild browns and rainbows in the company of a band of guides and anglers who dedicate no small portions of their lives to the pursuit.
It did not take me two months to learn why this place is so special to so many. It’s not just a pretty river meandering through beautiful countryside. It’s a river with big, hard-pulling wild trout, native born and discerning enough to challenge even the most experienced angler. You start catching fish like these, and you’ll never want to leave.
When I returned to reality, I got to work. We’ve had some successes in protecting the river. But the Upper Delaware is a fragile ecosystem, and now it is threatened by a bitter dispute between New Jersey and New York City over water availability, and how much should be released into the river for the fishery and downstream states from reservoirs that provide water to the city.
It’s crunchtime. If public officials cannot reach an agreement before midnight on May 31, reservoir releases to the river will be cut, resulting in extremely low water levels and potentially high water temperatures in the river — exactly the opposite of what is needed for a thriving trout fishery.
It’s not just anglers who will suffer. The Upper Delaware watershed is less than a three-hour drive away for millions of people. Many who travel here cherish the high-quality outdoor recreational experiences. Tourism is the leading revenue generator in a region desperate for economic revival. A 2014 report valued the impact of the river’s fishing, boating and second-home market on the regional economy at $414 million.
So local businesses — boosted by the millions of dollars visitors spend every year on things like food, lodging, fuel, tackle, boats and second homes — will foot the bill for the political stalemate.
The irony is that this fishery and this tourism economy owe their existence to the very New York City water supply reservoirs that are at the center of the dispute. When cold, clean water is released from the bottom of the dams in sufficient quantities, the Upper Delaware ecosystem comes to life.
A 1954 Supreme Court decree compelled New York City and the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware to work cooperatively to divvy up reservoir water in a way that satisfies the city’s water demands and also meets a broad array of needs throughout the entire Delaware basin.
After decades of complex negotiations, the parties settled on a temporary agreement in 2007, and although it is not perfect, the plan does allow for enough cold-water releases to support reasonably healthy ecological conditions in the river most of the time.
But New Jersey has refused to renew the agreement and wants changes so New York City does not “overly and unnecessarily utilize” water from the Delaware River basin. Without a new deal, outdated rules dating to the 1980s will take effect on June 1.
This will wreak havoc on the Upper Delaware River. Reservoir releases will be dramatically slashed. The 51 miles that now qualify for “excellent” cold-water protections will shrink to 13 miles. Large stretches of the riverbed could be left dry for days or weeks. Highly erratic “yo-yo” releases from the reservoirs will cause widespread ecological instability. The river-based tourism economy will suffer.
Remarkably, most experts agree that there is sufficient water to satisfy everyone’s needs. But this fact seems to be lost on the bureaucrats battling over water allocations.
As next week’s deadline approaches, it’s time for the four governors and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York to step in and agree on a path forward. Where to start? Maybe they could do what I did four years ago — spend some time on the river and refocus on what really matters: the health of this special ecosystem, and the welfare of the people and local communities that rely on it so heavily.