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Delaware River flow agreement gets closer; four of five parties have signed on

Delaware confirmed that it has signed the new management plan (aka Flexible Flow Management Program) that governs how much water there is in the upper Delaware -- mostly that means how much water is released from New York City's three Delaware River reservoirs -- Pepacton, Cannonsville and Neversink.

That leaves only one last decree party left to sign: Pennsylvania.

That was perhaps the biggest news from yesterday's Water Water Everywhere conference hosted by the Friends of the Upper Delaware, whose focus is the protection of the cold-water ecosystem of the Upper Delaware River.

In a panel that discussed the new agreement, the Pennsylvania representative, Jennifer Orr, confirmed that its signature is "near."

Asked whether the delay in signing was related to the high points of the new agreement, which were explained by Brennan Tarrier, New York State's representative, she paused a moment, reviewed the slide with its complicated enumeration of the new agreement and said, simply: "No."

New York City's representative, Jennifer Garigliano, explained that although New York City's reservoir management had set a deadline of Oct. 10 to stop the "extra" releases not called for in this interim period between agreements, it was not reverting to the skimpy releases mandated by previous decree party agreements. It was planning to gradually decrease releases over time in the hope that the agreement would be signed shortly.

This isn't the first time the proposed plan has been presented to the public. At the Sept. 28 Regulated Flow Advisory Committee of the Delaware River Basin Commission in West Trenton, Robert R. Mason, the Delaware River master, presented a series of slides that are available on the DRBC's website:
http://www.nj.gov/…/…/RFAC/092817/FFMP_Robert-Mason_ODRM.pdf

The new plan is a 10-year agreement in two five-year segments. The first five years is for study and to find solutions to some gnarly river-flow problems, like the requirement that New York City's reservoirs are responsible for keeping the salt line at bay. In the new era of climate change with its expected sea-level rise, noted the Delaware representative, David Wunsch, all three reservoirs could be emptied and the salt line might still advance.

"The hydrology of the river has changed and is changing," said Wunsch, at yesterday's conference. "If you took an aerial view of the river now and compared it to '54 (when the Supreme Court decree was written) you'd see how much it has changed."

Down basin water storage is another problem, which is linked to the storage in the city's reservoirs.

With new modeling tools, it might be possible for New York City to release more water when it's needed -- when the river is low, for example or for thermal releases when the weather is warm. The less water released, the shallower the river is likely to be and the more likely it will warm up -- and it needs the cold-water releases from the reservoirs since it's a cold-water ecosystem.

The reason that the old FFMP didn't get its unanimous approval in the spring was that New Jersey wanted something more guaranteed in its Delaware and Raritan Canal drought withdrawal. New Jersey didn't get all that it wanted in the new plan but what it got was guaranteed, which is what it needed to plan its water resources in the future.

"We all gave a little," said New Jersey's representative, Steve Domber. "We all get a little."

One of the key items for this audience was how the public can get involved with the decree parties' decisions. All of the discussions among decree parties are closed, and there's no part of the new plan that the representatives discussed that would address that.

Additionally there was once a science subcommittee of the Regulated Flow Advisory Committee (Subcommittee on Ecological Flows) and it was a way for science to inform the decisions of the RFAC as well as the decree parties. Again, no indication if that's a part of this plan. It also seems as though the endangered Dwarf Wedge Mussel -- a resident of the upper river -- is also not part of the plan.

"I'm optimistic," said Tarrier, "that without the one-year renewals we can dig deeper into the science."

Lastly, flooding. Many people that live on or near the river have been affected by flooding over the years and have advocated for a void to be kept in the reservoirs to hold back some of the rain.

In the old FFMP, there was a 10 percent void for part of the year. The new plan calls for a 15 percent void for a longer period, but still not quite the whole year.

One of the important pieces of the plan as outlined by Mason in last week's RFAC meeting was that the parties have committed to conducting studies over the next five years. They hope, he said, to develop detailed plans with milestones to show that they are serious about working on outstanding issues and to hold themselves accountable.

But perhaps Orr summed it up best: "This is an adaptive management tool. Getting an agreement is not the end but the beginning of the process."

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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