Flood tide: The art and science of releasing water

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 11/2/21

DELAWARE RIVER — On October 27 the water rose, covering roads and yards, pouring into basements.

This wasn’t a flood like the one in 2006, but it was impressive enough; a look at …

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Flood tide: The art and science of releasing water

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DELAWARE RIVER — On October 27 the water rose, covering roads and yards, pouring into basements.

This wasn’t a flood like the one in 2006, but it was impressive enough; a look at social media photos from Livingston Manor and Hortonville proves it.

Online, residents worried that more water would be released from the reservoirs, raising the height of the river even more.

That’s very unlikely, said Dr. Peter Kolesar. His research into the impact of water releases on the Delaware River ecosystem led to deep change in how those releases are performed.

“Basically, we acted as outside agitators.”

He explained how the process works.

Change moved in stages since 2005, but now the releases “are more tuned to the environmental needs of the year,” he said. “They’re also tuned to how much water is in the reservoirs.”

The previous system had a flaw. Managed by the four basin states involved (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware) plus New York City, it was based on the premise that “releases had to be designed so that New York City took its full allotment of water, 800 million gallons per day,” even if it didn’t need it.

The flaw was this, Kolesar said. The release amount “was extremely conservative. Water was wasted from an environmental viewpoint.”

So he and the others working on the problem proposed changes. These balance the needs of tourists, the city and local residents with the needs of the fish in the river.

The new system takes into account what water is actually needed and used, plus the forecast for the next month. Will there be a lot of rain? Releases are adjusted.

A chart from the U.S. Geological Survey at the Downsville, NY gage gives an idea of what happens in a big storm. The amount of water released drops sharply at noon on October 26, as predictions were made for heavy rain the following day. It stays low until late morning on October 27, when some water is released. (By that time the storm’s track was more clear.) But it’s not until October 29 that release levels get close to where they were at noon on October 26.

“New York City has been tremendously sensitized to flooding,” he said. Flood mitigation has been added to the Flexible Flow Management Program.

Timing releases correctly is difficult, of course; prediction isn’t easy. But science continually improves upon itself.

The final part, within the last five years, he said, is that “the system was still not adjusted during heatwaves. The water heats up and harms the trout.” Now if high temperatures are predicted, more water can be released, cooling the river.

What can we expect, given a changing climate?

Kolesar tracks air temperature data from a Binghamton weather station. Summer temperatures in general and the number of days over 80 degrees have gone up, he said, “but it’s not drastic yet.”

Here in the Catskills, temperature changes will result in more rain, temperatures going up, and more storms. “We have to do our best to be prepared.”

There is more to learn, and people need to be involved. “This river is a treasure that doesn’t speak for itself. We need interested activists that are watching what’s happening,” Kolesar said. “It’s a big, big complex system with conflicting interests. We need to make our voices heard to protect our water.”

Kolesar was the recipient of the Lee Wulff Conservation Award from the Catskill Fly Fishing Center on October 30. For remarks about his accomplishments, turn to page 15.

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