NARROWSBURG, NY — Even though he arrived 20 minutes late, Thomas Murphy Jr. got a warm welcome Thursday evening from Upper Delaware Council (UDC) chair Jeffrey Dexter, who said, “We’ve been waiting 30 years for you.”
The UDC has long awaited a spokesman to answer questions about New York City’s handling of the upstream dams that control flows in the Delaware River, and Murphy serves as Chief of Reservoir Release Policy Development of the New York City (NYC) Department of Environmental Protection, Bureau of Water Supply.
Murphy came with a presentation about the city’s system, including 19 reservoirs in a 2,000 square-mile watershed, which when full impounds 580 billion gallons of water and provides 1.1 billion gallons to nine million people daily.
A difference in philosophies about the watershed was evident early, as Murphy displayed maps showing where “our” water is located.
Deerpark UDC representative John Dean, quickly interjected. “No, it’s our water.”
There was no immediate debate about the contradiction, but the issue was paramount in the question-and-answer session after his slideshow, which stretched Murphy’s program to over an hour.
Use of the Delaware River water is determined by a 1954 Supreme Court decision and subsequent management agreements among the so-called Decree Parties (Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and the City of New York). The original decision entitled New York City to draw up to 800 million gallons per day (mgd) of water for its needs, and mandated in addition that enough water be released to maintain minimum flows at Montague, NJ. Unanimous consent is required to make changes in water release policies, but there have been a number of changes since the original decree. A comprehensive explanation of them can be found at water.usgs.gov/osw/odrm/releases.html.
In his presentation, Murphy revealed that NYC’s actual water demand in recent years has fallen substantially, having peaked in the 1970s at around 700 mgd, to levels similar to the record drought of the 1960s, crediting conservation measures.
Murphy said the city’s primary goal is to ensure that the reservoirs are 100% full by June 1 of each year. Water not drawn by New York City or used to maintain the Montague target, termed the Excess Release Quantity (ERQ) or Interim Excess Release Quantity (IERQ) “is not ours” he said, and is available for downstream uses. But as noted, there must be unanimous agreement among the decree parties regarding such uses.
Hancock representative Fred Peckham asked about flood control. He noted that the difference in discharge amounts during a flood greatly impacts flood damage. “A 10-foot difference in the level can make a $100 million difference in damages.” The 10% void that the most recent flow management regime aims for during certain times of the year has been a helpful buffer during storms in this respect. However, Murphy noted that though the reservoirs can help in a single storm, in back-to-back storms, “it’s really hard to deal with two.”
At the other end of the spectrum, in drought situations an increase in directed releases may be required in order to meet the Montague flow target. But no set flow target exists above Montague, and if high flows from the Lackawaxen and Neversink rivers are meeting the Montague requirement, Delaware levels upstream of Lackawaxen can drop precipitously because NYC reservoir releases aren’t being made.
Noting that withheld NYC releases can leave the upper river nearly dry, Peckham objected.
Murphy confirmed that the city did not have to release water in such instances. Changes to this policy require unanimous agreement of the decree parties, he added.
The recent rejection of a proposal by Peter Kolesar and Jim Serio to manage thermal stress on the upper river, supported by the UDC, was a hot topic for public comment. When the river runs low and accordingly warmer, Bart Larmouth of the Upper Delaware Club said he fields 100 phone calls daily from angry anglers and non-anglers alike.
Highland Supervisor and Trout Unlimited chapter President Andrew Boyar noted that no reasons had been given for the rejection of the proposal, which had been based on scientific algorithms. When Murphy claimed that procedures were already in place to deal with thermal stress episodes, Boyar said, “Even when there is plenty of water, we have to pound on doors to get any response.” Last year, out of four requests by the PA Fish and Boat Commission for thermal relief, only one received a response.
Sherri Resti of Friends of the Upper Delaware River pointed out that the entire recreation industry is impacted. “It’s not just fisheries, people are hiking, camping and spending money here.”
While he said that NYC has participated in special programs outside the formal agreement, Murphy said, “the city has never thought there is enough water to thermally maintain the main stem. We’ve made that clear more than once.”
Tusten’s Susan Sullivan looked for a straight answer. “Then you’re not responsible for the health of the main stem?”
“Put differently,” Murphy replied, “There is only so much water to go around.”