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How goes the flow? This Delaware River committee wants to know

Irrepressible anglers on a rainy April day, fishing on the West Branch of the Delaware River.PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE
Irrepressible anglers on a rainy April day, fishing on the West Branch of the Delaware River.PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Do NOT attempt to read this story unless you've read the previous one on the Regulated Flow Advisory Committee.

Sorry to be harsh but the way this river is governed is much like Matryoshka dolls: committees nesting inside other committees. The biggest "doll" of the set is the Delaware River Basin Commission: the five-member commission that oversees the river's quality and quantity. The commission is made up of the governors of the four basin states and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government's representative.

The DRBC is the chief doll. It's the policy-making tool for the river's quality and quantity. All those nested committees provide the stage for scientific and technical conversations between scientists and stakeholders as to what the "right" policy should be. They advise the DRBC as to what policy seems right, but the big doll is -- usually -- boss.

Did you catch that "usually"?

We're in a slightly different ball game with the Regulated Flow Advisory Committee, often referred to as a two-syllable acronym: R-FAC. This committee is not "inside" the DRBC as the other committees are. It is composed of the four states but instead of the federal government, New York City is in it. And that's because New York City is one of the five decree parties. And that's all you're going to get here -- there's LOTS more in that previous story. 

So "inside" R-FAC is the Subcommittee on Ecological Flows, AKA: SEF.

The SEF is a working, sometimes called a technical. committee of the RFAC, and its purpose isn't just some overarching review of how the water in the river helps or hurts aquatic life, but rather it gets assigned jobs by the RFAC.

One of the ongoing problems that previous Flexible Flow Management Programs (here's where you really have to read that "other" story on the RFAC) never tackled is exactly how flexible is that flow? What is the best way to use "extra" water that comes from New York City's reservoirs?

Previous agreements among the decree parties (that's the four states and New York City) created two "banks" of water in the reservoirs, or two that they're considering right now. One that could be used to keep the water colder (trout like that) called the Thermal Mitigation Bank. The other, called the Rapid Flow Change Mitigation Bank, which softens sudden abrupt shut offs or releases of water, which leads to what are called yo-yo releases and even de-watering events. 

Banks? There are banks in the reservoirs? Yep. Because I like you I'm going to not go into great detail on this, but essentially New York City's water folks keep a very close eye on what water the city needs over time and what rains may come and a bunch of other variables. They can estimate that the storage in its huge reservoirs is big enough to allow it to shed some water to balance the flow and to keep water colder.

More science: The thermal bank is 2,500 cfs/days. (A volume of water represented by a flow of one cubic foot per second for 24 hours.) The Rapid Flow Change Mitigation is 1,000 cfs/day. The water can come from any of the three Delaware reservoirs, but most often it comes from Cannonsville.

It's a natural thing for rivers to rise and fall, but the artificial ingredient for the Delaware are those dams at the reservoirs. There isn't really a "natural" flow anymore. 

There are, not surprisingly, sides to this more-flow/less-flow issue. Take the fisher folk. Anglers who like trout want the waters to be as cold as possible for as long as possible. Funny thing, before the reservoirs, there was trout fishing in the Catskills, but it was more like the type of trout fishing you find on the Beaverkill. Anglers wade into streams and trout swim upstream to escape the water that gets warmer in the summer.

Thanks to the releases from the two big reservoirs (Cannonsville and Pepacton), downstream there is -- depending on the time of year -- lots of mighty cold water. Fishing for trout has performed a little miracle -- bringing fishing dollars to an area of New York that is sorely lacking jobs. This fishing is done largely off boats on waters that are rivers, not streams. That opportunity has vocal supporters who want to see as much trout fishing on the East and West branches and the main stem of the Delaware as possible.

This is  plate taken from the new Flexible Flow Management Program - it explains the cold water systems of the upper river and its branches. PHOTO BY MEG MCGUIRE

Of course, there are more than just trout enthusiasts. Daryl Pierce, a fisheries biologist with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, explains, for example, that:

American Shad have been extirpated from the West Branch due to coldwater management objectives for maintaining a coldwater aquatic community in those reaches; the water is simply too cold to support American Shad.  Yet, SEF needs to ensure any recommended thermal target at Lordville does not preclude (American) Shad from inhabiting the lower reaches of the East Branch.  

Have a look at the map, and walk through it with me. Imagine all that really cold water from Cannonsville Reservoir coming into the West Branch, so cold that the American shad isn't found there any more. If SEF aims for similarly chilly waters downriver at Lordville, then American shad are likely to disappear from the East Branch, too.

The marching orders from R-FAC asked SEF to explore how much of the bank should be used and when to support the cold water fishing but, as Pierce explained at more than one of the SEF meetings: "Our goal is to keep the blue water blue, not to turn green (or orange or red) water blue."

One more deep dive: Look again at that map. You see how the West Branch stays blue all the way to Hancock? Where the Delaware River actually begins? You see, too, how the blue changes to orange on the East Branch? It changes largely because the Beaverkill flows into the East Branch and that flow is not made colder by any reservoir flow. It has a natural set of temperatures, which means it's almost always warmer, and gets significantly more warm during the summer.  

Back to Pierce:

Beginning at the confluence of the West and East Branches, the Delaware River main stem, Hancock to Callicoon has been designated as the transitional zone, where anglers could expect encountering coldwater (e.g., trout), coolwater (e.g., Walleye) and warmwater (basses, panfishes, Am. Eel, Am. Shad) fishes. Typically, within the Del. R. reaches identified as transitional, have dedicated fisheries to Walleye, basses, and Am. Shad, although to a lessor magnitude than trout enthusiasts.

  

You'll have noticed that the map includes the Neversink River and its reservoir. But the SEF hasn't been charged to include those waters in this discussion.That reservoir isn't as big as the other two and whatever water it releases has less impact on its tailwaters -- that's the area just below a dam. Most of the fishing there is like the stream fishing I mentioned previously.

There are lots of concerns for the upper river including an endangered species like the Dwarf Wedge Muscle found upriver of Lordville, Hankins, and Callicoon, N.Y. within the Delaware River main stem and also within the Neversink River.

According to Jake Bransky, an aquatic biologist with the DRBC and a liaison from the DRBC to this committee:

SEF will likely not be the group leading any new Delaware River DWM studies (unless specifically tasked to by RFAC). With that said, SEF is interested in the protection of DWM and is taking the species’ habitat needs into account as it performs its current mitigation bank evaluations.

And because we love committees, here's another one!  Called the Delaware River Dwarf Wedge Mussel Technical Committee, it's not another subcommittee of SEF, or RFAC, but it's headed up by a member of SEF: Sheila Eyler from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even when the committees aren't embeded, they can be linked.

Now, rather than shake your head at all this bureaucracy, think about how all the different concerns that focus on the Delaware River and its watershed are diligently examined. I know first-hand that these examinations are painstaking and often lead in directions where some of the stakeholders aren't happy, but at least they're trying.

These are the groups now involved with SEF: 

National Parks Service, Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Upper Delaware, Pennsylvania's Fish and Boat Commission, Columbia University Water Center, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, Philadelphia Water Department, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and of course the Delaware River Basin Commission, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, U.S. Geological Survey and Drexel University 

The focus for the SEF is determined by the R-FAC, so the SEF's job right now is to suggest to RFAC (the decree parties) how to manage the reservoir releases to get the best bang for its buck(et). Sorry, I couldn't help that.

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Avatar Marian Keegan on May 8, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    Much gratitude, Meg, for the deep look.

  2. Avatar Ted Amrein on May 10, 2019 at 11:44 pm

    Too much water. Release of 1499 CFS makes the west branch unwadable. I’ve done nothing but cancel all my reservations in Hancock. Need to lower to 400CFS or lower to make it safely wadable

  3. Avatar Kenneth Reitz on May 12, 2019 at 10:35 pm

    Have cabin in East Branch , N Y trout fishing .

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