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Upper Delaware Council, handcuffed by feds, faces possible closure

For 30 years, the Upper Delaware Council has navigated the sometimes turbulent political waters of the upper Delaware -- and the significant players that paddle in those waters. (The upper Delaware is the river from where its two branches meet in Hancock, N.Y., 73.4 miles south to Millrift, Pa., about four miles north of Port Jervis, N.Y.)

For 30 years, the council has received $300,000 every year from the Department of the Interior through the National Park Service.

Until this year.

The new Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, ordered a review of all of the Department of the Interior's cooperative agreements of $100,000 or more.

So there was a review in the summer, which held up the UDC's 2017 money.

That was done successfully. But another review is holding up this year's money.

The result? The UDC, soon out of money, announced last Thursday that it would close March 30. There's some reason to hope that the money will be released before then.

Here's the e-mail comment from Kristina Heister, the Superintendent of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River:

The National Park Service recognizes and values the essential work done by our partners in the Upper Delaware Council (UDC). We understand concerns about delays in FY18 federal funding and are aware of the potential for serious disruption in the UDC’s important work. We are working to have the Upper Delaware Council’s funding package approved as soon as possible.

But what then? Another review for next summer with another lag in funding?

The Upper Delaware Council only has three full-time employees. One of them, Cindy Odell, resigned as of Feb. 16. She can't take the uncertainty.

"We understand the need to be accountable for funding," said UDC Executive Director Laurie Ramie, "but there needs to be procedures in place for the reviews to happen in a way that doesn't risk a shut down."

If the UDC shuts down, it will no longer function to encourage local towns to pursue the land- and water-use aspirations of the River Management Plan. And there will be no buffer between the National Park Service and local residents and townships.

Time was that the National Park Service (the local representative of the Department of the Interior) gave the UDC its money in one lump sum.

Several years ago, it started a reimbursement process -- the UDC got its money only after it spent it. That meant it could have empty pockets when that flow slowed. To avoid that, the UDC got permission from the National Park Service to operate an unrestricted funds account, where extra money could be kept to operate as a float. The extra money wouldn't stay stagnant. It was invested, with the interest shared between the NPS and the UDC.

Those unrestricted funds were a problem that surfaced in this summer's review, with a resulting lag in money delivered. Even though there was that agreement -- the agreement had to be found and all the related paperwork shipped off to the reviewers. It was a big box.

Ever since 1978 when Congress designated the Upper Delaware as a Wild and Scenic River, those waters have been roiled from time to time with the energies unleashed by federal interest.

In these parts, governments are not always seen as the ones wearing white hats. Locals saw what happened with the mess of the proposed Tocks Island Dam -- a dam proposed to supply drinking water to New York City and Philadelphia and to mitigate flooding. The waters would cover what is now a large part of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area -- another National Park Service property. More than 72,000 acres were acquired by condemnation and eminent domain.

The debate about the dam and the property seizures energized local opposition and drew on the newly emerging environmental movement. Combined, they stopped the dam. It was a  surprising success since it was an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project and the U.S. A.C.E. was the Goliath to locals' David.

To assuage local opposition, an agreement was drawn up that instead of giving the National Park Service rights to private property, or ownership of the land in the Upper Delaware, the Upper Delaware Council would act as a mediator between the towns and landowners and the NPS.

The local residents, the NPS, the towns, the two states and the Delaware River Basin Commission developed that agreement -- it took 10 years until 1988. But that document, the River Management Plan, continues to guide the work of all those partners.

Also, in addition to funding from the Department of the Interior via the NPS, the River Management Plan calls for funding for the UDC from both New York and Pennsylvania. That has never happened.

For further information about the Upper Delaware Council: www.upperdelawarecouncil.org

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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