An Upstate Lifeblood, Ruled and Disputed From Afar

     JUNE 5, 2017

The west branch of the Delaware River in Hancock, N.Y. The five parties that depend on the water from area reservoirs have been unable to reach a consensus on how to manage the resource. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times        

HANCOCK, N.Y. — The cold water that flows out of the reservoirs just north of here does more than chill the muck-sopped waders of fly fishermen. Once strictly reserved for the taps of New York City and neighboring states, the cold flow gives life to a biomass of insects and trout that has turned the region into one of the premier fly-fishing locales in the country.

But early last Thursday, the swift current in the western branch of the Delaware River was in danger of nearly slowing to a trickle, as the five parties that depend on the water from the reservoirs — Delaware, New Jersey, New York State, New York City and Pennsylvania — were unable to reach a consensus on how to manage the resource by a self-imposed deadline that day.

New York City, which oversees the management of the reservoirs roughly three hours northwest of the city, announced contingency plans later that day, saying it would allow more water to flow into the Delaware basin while negotiations continued with New Jersey, which was the only party to refuse to renew the agreement, claiming that it was not getting its fair share of water.

Here in the upper Delaware basin, far removed from the political dealings that threatened the region’s fragile ecosystem and its economy, residents felt familiar pangs of vulnerability. They have watched their once-thriving factories and industries slowly shutter one by one, eventually leaving fishing and tourism as just about the only ways to earn a living.

Now, as their livelihoods increasingly rely on the ecological health of these waters, they watched once again as the decisions governing the river’s health and its future were made by stakeholders elsewhere.

Theodore May, 32, of New York City, fished last week on a rented boat on the river, south of Hancock. Fishing and tourism are vital to the region’s struggling economy. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times        

“The lack of local input, I mean, it’s a huge concern because you’re essentially at the whim of a bunch of politicians who may or not know even where we are,” said Jeff White, 44, who manages the Delaware River Club, a bait shop and lodge for fly fishing on the river. “So it’s tough and you do wonder sometimes, there is enough water to satisfy everyone, but their concerns don’t necessarily lie with ours.”

The battle centered on a bitter disagreement between New York City, which draws about half of its drinking water from the three reservoirs, and New Jersey, which depends on the Delaware River for drinking water and reserves that can be tapped during a drought.

The three reservoirs — Cannonsville, Neversink and Pepacton — were created by dams built on the headwaters of the Delaware River tributaries and collect water from rain and melting snow. The entire Delaware River Basin, which stretches for over 330 miles, provides drinking water for more than 15 million people, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission.

While confrontations over water are common in the arid and drought-prone parts of the West, political brinkmanship and the threats of climate change have energized the issue even in traditionally wet areas like the Northeast. Though melting snowpack from the Catskills and reliable rainfall often provide more than enough water for the region, the competing priorities of a thirsty metropolis and the needs of four states raise the stakes considerably.

“For the folks who have said that water may become more valuable than oil, that’s a forecast that is coming true,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

The Pepacton Reservoir, one of three reservoirs that provide about half of New York City’s drinking water. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times        

After a November drought in which New Jersey’s water reserves dipped to low levels, the state resisted renewing the complicated agreement that governs water distribution from the reservoirs, known as the Flexible Flow Management Plan, claiming that its allotment had decreased over the years.

“Right now, we’re the ones who have been shortchanged on water supply,” said Bob Martin, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re the ones with the dog in the fight because New York City won’t give us our fair share of water.” The state says it can now take 65 million gallons a day during drought conditions and is seeking an increase to 85 million gallons.

The water agreement is a result of decades of negotiations that began with a 1954 Supreme Court ruling laying out parameters for how to divide the water. At its simplest explanation, New York City owns and runs the reservoirs and disperses water based on agreements.

By failing to reach a consensus last week, the regulations governing water releases would have reverted to a 1983 agreement, which among other things would have greatly reduced releases from the base of the dams and drastically reduced water levels in estuaries and the Delaware River. New York City, however, offered a last-minute temporary lifeline to the region.

The city has been concerned about adopting a new permanent plan while being responsible for maintaining what is known as the salt line, a line of demarcation where incoming saltwater from the Delaware Bay meets the river’s freshwater. It is held in place by timely releases of freshwater from the reservoirs, providing enough of a flow to keep incoming saltwater from intruding up the Delaware River.

Downtown Hancock. Residents have watched as the decisions governing the river’s health and its future are made by stakeholders elsewhere. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times        

City officials worry that rising sea levels might put the city’s drinking water at risk, because more reservoir water might be needed to maintain the salt line.

Along the upper Delaware, a concern for many people is the risk of flooding to properties close to the water.

“You could warn, warn and beg and plead, and they will not pay attention until it blows up,” said Chuck Schroeder, the president of Drowning on the Delaware, a flood awareness group. He owns a house on the banks of the east branch of the river that has been ravaged by floodwaters.

Among the chain of towns pocketed around the Catskills that have populations rarely topping four figures, many are wholly dependent on visitors and owners of second homes who flock to the area starting in April to fish for trout, an industry that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.

“It’s a world-class fishery,” said Bruce Miller, a 68-year-old fishing guide from Olive, N.Y., who has been working on the upper Delaware for more than 40 years. “It’s kind of frustrating to know that there’s plenty of water for everybody and they’re not making any kind of agreement for all parties. It’s a shame.”

Besides fishing, recreational tourism — canoeing, tubing, rafting and camping — is just as reliant on the high water marks preserved by the constant dam releases.

“The manufacturing economy stinks,” said Bill Gross, 49, who owns a canoe rental company in Hancock. “The only thing we really have is tourism. Without that, you know, what else do you have? It’s their drinking water, and I understand that. All we ask is for enough water to make a living.”

Molly Oliver

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