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Groups sound flooding alarm

Officials slow to respond


RIVER VALLEY — There’s little question that the reservoirs that provide New York City with drinking water are much more full than usual at this time of year. The question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

Seven conservation groups sent a letter in late December 2008 to the decree parties, the group that adopted the current reservoir release plan. The letter urged the decree parties “to take immediate action to lower levels in the City’s Delaware River reservoirs to prevent flooding.”

The response from the parties was mostly a big ho-hum.

The decree parties are the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware, along with the Mayor of New York City. A spokesman for Governor Rendell in Pennsylvania told the Associated Press that the governor saw no need for emergency action. A spokesman for the New York City Department of Environmental Preservation (DEP) would only say that the agency was reviewing the letter.

However, there was a more positive response from the New Jersey DEP. A representative from that group said the letter and the broader topic would be brought up at the next meeting of the decree parties working group, which is not open to the public or to the environmental groups.

Environmental lawyer Jeff Zimmerman, who is the contact person of the conservation groups, said, “We’ve gotten ourselves in a situation where our reservoirs are too full too early in the year. So we should make some space. When you have one inch of runoff flowing into the three reservoirs (Pepacton, Cannonsville and Neversink), it adds 16 billion gallons of water into the reservoirs.” The concern is that if the weather warms and there is significant rain, it will result in water running over the spillways, which could exacerbate any potential flooding. And the danger will remain through spring.

The complaint of the groups is basically the same as has been put forward before: that there is enough water in the system to provide both for water for the needs of New York City, while providing flood mitigation in the spring, and cool waters to the Upper Delaware and its tributaries in the summer to keep the trout fisheries and endangered species, such as the dwarf wedge mussel, healthy. But the river isn’t being managed in a way that will maximize that goal.

It’s an argument that now has a new wrinkle. According to Zimmerman, over the coming years, the NYC DEP will be forced to close tunnels that carry water from the three reservoirs to the Roundout Reservoir, then to the Croton Reservoir system and ultimately to the city. The tunnels are in need of repairs that will likely take years to complete.

Such a closure occurred for 30 days in October 2008, and led to an additional 24 billions of gallons of water in the reservoirs, and is one of the reasons why levels are as high as they are now. Zimmerman said future closures and releases should be timed to work with the dual goals of flood mitigation and fishery protection.

However, experts in the field don’t necessarily agree that the reservoirs affect the flooding.

To which Zimmerman replied, “Flooding is going to happen on the river from time to time. I’m not suggesting that the reservoirs cause the floods, but they ought to be operated in a way that can mitigate the floods. My point is, if you have the capability to do something and you don’t do something, and we have the floods or we have the temperature spikes that kill the wildlife in the upper river in the summer, then some of the responsibility is on you. You can’t blame it all on Mother Nature.”

The authors of the letter were the North Delaware River Watershed Conservancy, Friends of the Upper Delaware River, Aquatic Conservation Unlimited, Delaware Riverside Conservancy, Drowning on the Delaware, Residents Against Flood Trends and Trout Unlimited.

Contributed graphic
This graphic shows that the water level in the reservoir system is 69.9 billion gallons more than the long-term median at this time of year. (Click for larger version)