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National Park Service wants to play a bigger role in upper Delaware River water system

There are five decree-party principals: New York State, New York City, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Now, maybe we need another chair.

The superintendent of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, Kris Heister, would like The Park Service to have a seat at the table with the decree parties to ensure that the upper Delaware stays true to principles of the Park Service.

She discussed the whys and hows of the idea at the Water, Water Everywhere conference held Oct. 11 and hosted by the Friends of the Upper Delaware, whose focus is the protection of the cold water ecosystem of the Delaware River.

"Protecting in-stream flow is fundamental to managing a Wild and Scenic River," said Heister, Her park is one of three parks on the Delaware River managed or administered by the Parks Service. All three are designated Wild and Scenic.

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 "to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational value in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. https://www.rivers.gov/wsr-act.php

According to Heister, 46 percent of the Delaware River is managed or administered by the National Park Service. Two are units of the Park Service. The Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River runs for about 73 miles from just below Hancock, N.Y. to Mill Rift, N.Y.

The second, and likely better known, is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which is 40 miles from just below Milford, Pa., to just above Portland, Pa.

The last section, about 39 miles, isn't contiguous and runs in fits and starts from below Easton, Pa. to Washington's Crossing, Pa. This one, called (confusing for most of the population below Trenton) the Lower Delaware Wild and Scenic River River, is not a unit of the parks service, but is administered by it in concert with community representatives.

Heister is focused on the section of the river that she manages, and she's concerned especially about the so-called yo-yo releases, which result in a full river one day, and near empty the next.

That harms the ecology of the river, especially the upper river's endangered species -- the Dwarf Wedge Mussel. Insects and fish also suffer when the river is dry. And in the summer, the various recreational boating activities can't happen if there isn't enough water.

These releases have been a sore point for many in the Upper Delaware, and their concern came though loud and clear: "How can we tolerate this?" asked Fred Peckham, the Town of Hancock representative to the Upper Delaware Council and chairman of the UDC’s Water Use/Resource Management Committee.

"How can the DRBC do this?" he asked. "It could be mitigated, but it's not."

Others pointed out that there is no bad actor, that it's a structural problem. (A new plan for the flow of the Delaware River seeks to address this problem.)

Heister had a solution: a new seasonal flow target at Callicoon, N.Y., some 60 miles above the Supreme Court designated flow gage at Montague, and before the Lackawaxen River (and the connected Wallenpaupack releases).

It was a popular suggestion. A flow gage at Callicoon focuses attention on the upper river, and takes nothing away from the flows needed downriver.

"We want to be part of the team," Heister said. Her input was welcomed by the mostly upriver attendees at the conference.

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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