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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

By Fritz Mayer
October 9, 2013

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.