Flooding: a comprehensive solution needed

Although much still needs to be done in the aftermath of the recent, tragic floods, many have already begun to look for ways to minimize such devastating events in the future. Concerned area residents and local officials now debate—each with a sincere conviction—such flash-point issues as dredging, channelizing, removing gravel bars, maintaining reservoir voids and other similar measures.

While there is no question of the sincerity of those arguing on either side of these issues, there is nonetheless an essential point that is all too frequently overlooked by both sides in these discussions: the critical need for a scientifically based, comprehensive flood-plain/tributary restoration plan for the Upper Delaware.

The Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR) put forth such a plan last January. The plan takes account of the fact that in any given watershed, there are numerous small streams that flow into larger streams, which flow into still larger streams that flow eventually into the rivers. During the past 200 years or so, man has built dams on these tributaries (powering saw mills, grist mills, etc.) that have long since fallen out of use. Over time a number of dams were often built on the same tributary. Each of these dams had a millpond that soil erosion from the surrounding hillsides eventually filled in, altering the natural course of the tributary. The effect of this was to reduce, or eliminate, each individual tributary’s natural floodplains—those areas where floodwaters could naturally disperse, reducing a flood’s volume, velocity and sediment, as it flowed downstream. The total number of these old dams is, to most new observers, surprising, and the result of having lost these natural floodplains is greater quantities and higher velocities of floodwater and sediment flowing downriver.

The object of the FUDR plan is to identify and restore the tributaries and floodplains to their historic, natural locations, allowing floodwater to disperse into those restored natural areas and thereby reducing volume and velocity of floodwater. The benefits of these reductions are several: improved utilization of natural floodplains helps to mitigate the impact of flooding on both people and property; strengthened stream-bank integrity helps insure that trout habitat and spawning areas are better protected; there is less silting; there is less erosion, preserving more of the environment; and there is less gravel and rock pushed downstream.

Despite its many advantages, it must be realized that floodplain/tributary restoration is not in and of itself flood control. It is, however, a critical piece of the mosaic.

In a perfect world, the effect of restoring all of the watershed’s natural floodplains would be dramatic. In the real world, the objective, as outlined in our plan, is to identify and restore as many floodplains/tributaries as is practical. Though not perfect, the cumulative benefits are essential in helping to mitigate the effects of future flood events on people, their property, the fisheries and the ecology in general.

The plan FUDR put forth is a scientifically based proposal for Phase I of a long-term restoration program that includes the research and field work necessary to identify the historic tributary/floodplains within the Upper Delaware region, and the development of a set of objective criteria from which a tributary restoration priority list would be developed. Phase II would be the selection and implementation, based on the criteria, of three pilot projects to validate the research, and Phase III would be the ongoing restoration. Under FUDR’s plan, LandStudies, Inc., a firm specializing in this kind of restoration, would be retained.

Understanding that there is far more to watershed research than the traditional checking of records, the plan specifies the substantial and continuing involvement of both local elected officials and local citizens. Although much of the work will be done by contractors experienced in this kind of restoration (and free of any political or bureaucratic agendas), in every instance where qualified local workers are available they will be employed. The entire proposal is on our website ( www.fudr.org ).

Craig Findley, President

Friends of the Upper Delaware River

Minoa, NY