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December 09, 2016
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Wading into the weeds; Addressing the Flexible Flow Management Plan

Professor Peter Kolesar addresses the decree parties regarding reservoir releases and the Delaware River.
Contributed photo

Only about a dozen people turned out to the “listening session” convened at the request of the five representatives of the “decree parties” to hear comments about the Flexible Flow Management Plan (FFMP).

Yes, it is nearly as complex and arcane as it sounds, but the broad outlines of one aspect of it can be explained in a couple of sentences: A lot of people want the water that is contained in the Delaware River Watershed. Some of those people would like a tiny bit of that water from the Cannonsville Reservoir to be used to keep trout in the Upper Delaware cool in the summer. On the other hand, most of the people involved with setting policy about river releases don’t seem to care all that much about the temperature of the water in which the trout swim.

The decree parties are litigants to a lawsuit in 1954, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided how much water New York City and other entities could take out of the watershed, and how much water must be released to maintain the quantities needed to serve downstream users.

The administrative position of the Delaware River Master was created to ensure that terms of the decree were carried out. A few years later, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) was created to oversee the management of the river, but the DRBC can’t infringe on any of the decree parties’ rights without the unanimous consent of all those parties.

Representatives of the decree parties turned out to Sullivan County Community College on October 1, to hear comments from the public about the FFMP, the current plan that governs releases from the New York City reservoirs.

The Delaware River Master, Robert Mason, noted that he was appearing that night as a private citizen due to the partial shutdown of the federal government. Mason explained that the original court decree “does not require and does not provide for spill mitigation or for ecological flows, so New York City has no obligation to release any water,” beyond that as defined in the decree. So originally, no thought whatsoever was given to the impact of reservoir releases on aquatic life.

However, Robert Tudor, executive deputy director of the DRBC said that over time things began to change a bit. After historic droughts in the 1960s, it became clear that under some extreme conditions everyone’s water rights could not met. Also, stakeholders gradually became interested addressing a “flow need” that was not addressed in the original decree, which was the need to support aquatic life.

Tudor said that in 1983, the decree parties reached a “good faith agreement” that in time lead to the FFMP, which was adopted in 2007.

Professor Peter Kolesar and his research partner Jim Serio conducted extensive research on which the FFMP was initially based. The current plan is called FFMP-OST, the second part of which stands for Operation Support Tool, a tool that was developed for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by a consultant.

During his remarks at the listening session, Kolesar said he and Serio had developed a thermal stress protocol that could relieve heat stress on trout in the summer in the Main Stem of the river above Lordville. He and others said this could be done without risking the water supply of New York City and other municipalities, but his proposal had been rejected by the decree parties without comment.

Kolesar also criticized the DEP for not sharing the algorithm at the heart of the OST. He said the FFMP-OST is a “non-transparent, black box algorithm which is not fully understood, specified, or documented by the DRBC or by the decree parties, with the possible exception of New York City… and certainly not by interested outside stakeholders.”

He also found fault with the agencies responsible for environmental conservation in “several states” who should be interested in protecting the trout but who instead, “have been remarkably passive on the issue of summertime thermal relief. This should be a prime mission for them; their leadership is sorely needed.”

At this meeting, about seven people addressed the decree parties, and all of them said the issue of trout and thermal stress should be addressed as the next version of the FFMP is crafted.

Tony Ritter, a fishing guide and council member of the Town of Tusten, asked why for the 48 hours preceding the listening session the release from the Cannonsville Reservoir was near 1,000 cubic feet per second, when that same amount of water could have been released in July and August when it could have helped ensure the health of the trout.

Ritter said, “The Upper Delaware River is already one of the best, tail water, wild trout rivers in the eastern United States in the spring and also in the fall, when the air temperature is cool. It has the potential to be even better in the summer months.”

None of the decree party representatives commented.

A new FFMP may be adopted next year.

[Kolesar is also a photographer. A show including his stylized fish portraits is opening at The Stray Cat Gallery in Bethel this weekend. See page 27.]