Saturday, February 24, 2007

Flexible Flow Management?

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is proposing amendments to its Comprehensive Plan to establish a Flexible Flow Management Plan (FFMP) for the New York City Delaware Basin Reservoirs for "multiple objectives."

While it would be fair to say that the recent floods were a catalyst for the proposed amendments, the DRBC must consider a host of competing interests including water supply and drought mitigation, fisheries management, spill mitigation (flood control), salinity repulsion in the tidal river (a drinking water concern for Philadelphia and Camden), conservation flows, endangered species (dwarf wedge mussel, sturgeon), estuary and bay ecological health, and even recreational boating (whitewater releases) will be evaluated.

The main issue is New York City -- they depend on their three big Catskill reservoirs for drinking water. Put another way, NYC hijacks billions of gallons of water from the Delaware River and pipes it to the Hudson River watershed to supply a thirsty populous, which is supplied by an old, leaky system. At least a decade ago, NYC engineers learned that the Delaware Aqueduct, which pipes about a third of the city's water from the three Catskill reservoirs, is hemorrhaging up to 36 million gallons a day from major leaks at the point where the aqueduct tunnels under the Hudson River. The Hudson Riverkeeper believes the loss could be as high as 100 million gallons a day.

NYC is not the only thirsty water thief. New Jersey is allowed up to 120,000,000 gallons per day (not to exceed 100 mgd monthly average). They accomplish this out-of-basin transfer through the quaint Delaware and Raritan Canal. That is the purpose of the Bulls Island Wing Dam, to divert water into the canal and send it to New Brunswick (Raritan Basin).

The New Jersey water diversion is a drop in the bucket compared to NYC, which may withdraw up to 800,000,000 gallons per day. The three NYC water supply reservoirs were not constructed for flood control, rather they were intended to see the NYC region through periods of drought. The only way these reservoirs can be used to mitigate potential flodding is to keep a large enough void to absorb a signicant amount of rainfall, without creating a potential shortage if a drought were to occur.

The fact that NYC and the four basin states (plus the federal government) are moving forward to revisit these complex issues is a positive sign. Indeed, the Delaware River Basin Commission exists for that very purpose, to create a scientifically sound basis for meeting a complex set of competing interests and concerns.

President Kennedy and the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York signed legislation creating the DRBC in 1961, making it the first regional governing body in the nation with the force of law to oversee a unified approach to managing a river system without regard to political boundaries.

A viable and adequately funded DRBC is needed . Over the past several years Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have shouldered the financial burden for keeping DRBC afloat. Unfortunately, and one could say ironically, New York has not lived up to its commitment to pay its fair share, and the the US Congress has reneged on paying its DRBC dues going back to Newt Gingrich's "Republican Revolution" of 1994.

Update: the NYC reservoirs have been lowered from last month's 96.9% of capacity to 88.9% as of February 23, and the snow pack is still well below normal; good news for residents of the Delaware River floodplain.

After a few pages of "WHEREAS" here is how the proposed "Flexible Flow Management Plan" is summarized:
"BE IT RESOLVED by the undersigned Commissioners and Decree Parties: A Flexible Flow Management Program is hereby established, whereby the Decree Parties shall manage diversions and releases. The FFMP is designed to provide safe and reliable supplies of water essential to serve the needs of customers who depend on water from the City Delaware Basin Reservoirs, the Delaware River, or its tributaries affected by the reservoirs, to manage discharges from the City Delaware Basin Reservoirs, to provide flows and temperatures in the tailwaters to help sustain cold water fisheries, and to provide flows in the main stem and the bay to help protect ecological health, support withdrawal and nonwithdrawal uses, and repel salinity. The FFMP incorporates the elements provided below, recognizing that various elements may require further study and investigation either prior to or during implementation and that some elements may therefore be implemented prior to others. It is also recognized that other elements may be added in the future, when or if identified. Addition of, or modifications to, elements of the FFMP may require adjustments or modifications to other prior established elements."

Two public hearings on the proposed "Flexible Flow Management Plan" will be conducted at 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. respectively on Tuesday, March 27, 2007 at the Lake Wallenpaupack Environmental Learning Center in Hawley, Pa. Written comments will be accepted by DRBC through April 6, 2007. Comments can either be emailed or snailmailed.

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