“The water bureaucrats will try to blame the weather,” said Dan Plummer, board chairman of Friends of the Upper Delaware River. “But after a wet and chilly spring and early summer, river temperatures reached a crisis level after just a few days of above-average temperatures. That points to mismanagement.”
The hot water temperatures have placed fish, aquatic insects and the general well-being of the river system at peril due to insufficient cold-water releases from the region’s reservoirs. Water temperatures have consistently exceeded 80 degrees during July on the main stem of the Delaware at Callicoon, N.Y., where fishing traditionally has been great this time of year.
“I made a living guiding in that part of the river for years,” said FUDR board member Joe Demalderis, the 2010 Orvis Guide of the Year. “That stretch is lost to fishing under the release plan. The fish need cold water, and 80 degrees won’t cut it.”
Water temperatures are based largely on the volume of cold-water releases from the bottom of reservoirs, and protocols for the rates of release are spelled out in the so-called Flexible Flow Management Program, approved in 2007 by the multi-state water bureaucracy.
Longtime river observers, including a number of respected guides and the likes of FUDR board member Al Caucci, say the FFMP does not satisfy the needs of the fishery. FUDR has long advocated a minimum release of 600 cubic feet per second from the Cannonsville Reservoir on the West Branch from April through September.
In recent weeks, vast numbers of dead fish—mainly white suckers but including some trout and American shad—have been observed in the river. Incredibly, some have publicly touted this as an example of the effectiveness of the FFMP---fish are dying, they say, but only bottom-feeding suckers.
It’s an absurd spin on a crisis, said Plummer.
“The presence of dead fish, no matter the species, is a clear sign of an emergency,” he said.
Friends of the Upper Delaware River has put together the backgrounder below that attempts to explain how and why this has happened.
A moderate hot spell for a few days in late June and a deeper heat wave over the July 4th weekend quickly brought the river to a crisis point, even though the reservoirs were nearly full of cold water that could have sustained the ecosystem.
The bottom line is that scores of meetings, a pile of reports and endless planning by the water bureaucracy did almost nothing to help when the inevitable warming arrived. The watercrats failed, once again.
Management of this water resource can seem complicated, beginning with the fact that a multi-state agency, the Delaware River Basin Commission, shares oversight with a number of other governmental entities with a stake in the resource. In addition, New York City fights doggedly to protect its own stake—the water that comes from the same upstate New York reservoirs that feed the Delaware.
The solution to the ongoing crisis can be simple. When properly managed, there is plenty of water to suit everyone’s needs. But we are a stuck in an endless pattern of yo-yo water releases—up one week, down the next. Often, torrents flow downstream when the water is needed least, then releases are throttled down to a trickle when it is needed most.
FUDR has been a leader in the battle to get in place a more sensible water-release plan, providing both safety from flooding and a sustainable world-class fishery. We again call on the authorities to do something to fix this problem.
Why should you care if fish and habitat are dying? The answer is obvious if you fish the river system. But the well-being of the river is a vital issue for each of the 8 million people who live in the river’s vast basin and the 20 million—including residents of New York City—who use it for drinking water. Smart management of the river can mitigate flooding for those millions of residents, and its robust health is essential to the region’s economy, from factories that use the water to the tourism industry and all the ancillary businesses that serve recreational visitors.
Here is some background on what got us to this point:
- New York City has been drawing drinking water from the Catskill Mountains since 1915. Its decision in the 1920s to dam the headwaters of the Delaware River led to a 30-year court battle that pitted downstream states against the city. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court established a formula under which the four river states and New York City must share the Delaware system waters.
- In 1961, the Delaware River Basin Commission was created to “bring the resource under collective and balanced control, and to ensure fair usage by its controlling members.” Its members are the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, along with a federal representative.
- The Cannonsville Reservoir on the West Branch was completed in 1964. The cold water that pours from the bottom of Cannonsville transformed the river into a wild trout Mecca, attracting fly fishing enthusiasts. Under its original design, Cannonsville released a consistent flow of no less than 325 cubic feet of cold water per second whenever water was allowed to flow—and that consistent flow is a key reason that the trout downstream thrived.
- A crisis in 1981 became an important challenge to New York City’s ability to make decisions about water flows without considering the impact. With the threat of drought looming, New York City in June 1981 closed down all releases from Cannonsville, creating an environmental crisis on the river. River temperatures soared to 80 degrees, and a fish kill occurred. River advocates complained to the DRBC. Releases were restored to previous levels and the river system’s well-being was restored.
- The crisis gave rise to the notion that the various parties with an interest in the river and its water should agree to a plan for release of water. This tinkering has continued year after year, with one plan after another devised as a temporary solution. There have been nine such plans, one worse than the next. (The current plan, the Flexible Flow Management Program, is designated as temporary, as well.)
- In 2004, FUDR began actively advocating a minimum flow rate of 600 cfs out of Cannonsville from April 1st through the end of Septemeber. Conservationists generally agree that this rate best serves the aquatic life—along with fishing and recreational tourism on the scenic rivers. We have warned for many years about the dangers of holding too much water in the reservoirs during the summer months, when drenching rainstorms can race through the region.
- Our worst fears came to pass when three major floods caused extensive damage, including loss of life, over a 21-month period--September 2004, April 2005 and June 2006. In each case, the U.S. Geological Survey cited “reservoirs filled to capacity” as a major contributing factor. Officials of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the office that oversees the Catskills reservoirs, have pointed out repeatedly that they are in the business of delivering water to the city and are not particularly concerned with the issue of flood mitigation. The city is wrong. Courts have held that water-management decisions must be made based upon “equitable apportionment” that accommodates every reasonable use of the water, and that includes consideration of those who live or own property along the waterways.
- It became clear over the past decade that a rational system of water releases was needed. In 2007, the four basin states and New York City agreed to the Flexible Flow Management Program. This summer’s events prove again that the FFMP works no better than the previous plans. Currently, the Flexible Flow Management Program sets a minimum summertime flow out of Cannonsville at barely half of FUDR’s recommended rate—325 cubic feet per second. In essence, the FFMP releases precisely the same amount of water that was released under the conservation release program as 25 years ago. Countless meetings, studies and negotiations have led us back to where we were in the mid-1980s. In fact, the new protocols are even worse for the trout because there is no longer a provision for sustained emergency releases during heat waves, as there was in 1985.
- In February 2010, the Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission released a “white paper” analysis entitled, “Recommended Improvements to the Flexible Flow Management Program for Coldwater Ecosystem Protection in the Delaware River Tailwaters.” The scientific analysis details the benefits to the fisheries and river ecosystem that could be realized by increased releases. FUDR and other conservation groups publicly announced their support for the joint “white paper” as a great bridge plan until a better plan could be designed and implemented.
- On the first day of summer this year, FUDR issued a “crisis alert” predicting deadly water temperatures as a result of reservoir releases that had been throttled back out of Cannonsville, although the reservoir was 92 percent full.
- The crisis came to pass in early July, when air temperatures reached the mid- and upper 90s as a warm front stalled over the area. Water temperatures in the main stem soon spiked above 80 degrees.
- On July 4, after intercession by FUDR, River Master Gary Paulachok recognized the potential crisis and gained approval from the water bureaucracy to increase the flow through an “extraordinary needs” provision of the flow management plan. But here’s the catch: the “extraordinary” solution could be used for just three days. After 72 hours of temporary relief for the aquatic life, the Cannonsville release valves were cranked back down.
- On July 6, in the midst of the augmented water release, the water temperature reached 81 degrees on the main stem at Lordville, N.Y., just 9 miles from the junction of the West and East branches of the Delaware.
- On July 9, as the extra water was ending--despite reservoirs still at nearly 90 percent of capacity—FUDR’s Plummer donned scuba gear and spent four hours surveying the fish in a pool near the Buckingham Access, 4 miles downstream from Hancock near the East-West branch junction. He found hundreds of eels, a handful of bass and a few dying American shad. He did not see a single trout, dead or alive. The water temperature in the pool was a consistent 77 degrees, top to bottom.
- On July 12, according to New York City’s own data, as the trout were starved for cold water, the reservoirs were at 87 percent of capacity. Cannonsville was nearly 85 percent full.
Currently, the city draws about 480 million gallons per day from the reservoirs. Yet its water-usage decisions are based upon the outdated figure of 765 million gallons per day. If the city would base its water-usage protocols on a more realistic figure—say, 500 millions gallons per day---there would be plenty of water, including enough for releases of 600 cubic feet per second from Cannonsville from April 1 through September 30.
Once again, Friends of the Upper Delaware River implores the Delaware River Basin Commission and the water bureaucracy to devise a new water-release agreement that includes a rational emergency response mechanism to deal with inevitable heat crises.
“We all have to face the fact that the current plan is not working,” said Plummer. “The inability of the various government entities responsible to respond with a rational, useful solution to the warm July weather makes this painfully obvious, especially to the trout.”