On Thursday, Jan. 9, there will be a public meeting  -- really more of a brainstorming session --on a reevaluation study of the F.E. Walter Dam on the Lehigh River in Luzerne County in northeast Pennsylvania.

Expect fireworks.

Much of that energy might come from some misunderstanding -- and rumor mongering -- of the point of the study, and some from the role of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

What the hell is New York City doing here in Lehigh County?

So let's tackle the major concern: that New York City wants to "take" water from F. E. Walter.

It doesn't.

"New York City is not asking for any water supply from F.E. Walter," said Daniel Caprioli, a strategic planner with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which built and operates the dam and reservoir. It also initiated the study with its partners, the Delaware River Basin Commission and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Here's a statement from NYCDEP: (You can find it on the USACE's F.E. Walter study page:

"New York City does not want to draw drinking water from F.E. Walter Reservoir, have control of its operations, or purchase space within the reservoir. Its interest in the study is related to drought planning in the face of sea-level rise that is accelerating due to climate change, and how the operation of reservoirs throughout the basin can help meet these future challenges.”

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As Amy Shallcross, manager of water resource operations for the DRBC explained: "These three, the Army Corps, New York City Water and the DRBC are uniquely concerned about flow management in the watershed."

You can see why. The USACE has built and maintains reservoirs throughout the watershed, as well as F.E. Walter. New York City's reservoirs form the headwaters of the Delaware River.

The Delaware River Basin Commission is charged with the responsibility for the Delaware River's water quality (what's in the water) and water quantity (how much, or little water there is).

It may be that F.E. Walter Reservoir has a role to play in the planning for the future of the watershed's water supply, because the Lehigh River is part of the Delaware River watershed.

But the study isn't going to change its primary purposes -- flood mitigation and recreational use.

Those purposes were defined by Congress, and it would take another act to change those uses. No one is interested in that.

The dam was constructed in 1961 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to flooding in the Lehigh Valley after Hurricane Alice inundated communities in the river's watershed and repeated flooding in the past.

Once it was built, the opportunities provided by releases from the dam gave birth to a vibrant recreational use of the reservoir and river: whitewater rafting and all sorts of boating, as well as fishing and hunting provide serious dollars to the watershed communities.

Caprioli, from USACE, explained that the study could well increase recreational opportunities.

Shallcross, from DRBC, pointed out that the meeting is an opportunity to hear from all stakeholders. The study might suggest improvements to releases for whitewater rafting or improvements to the cold-water fisheries.

"It's important that we gather input early," said Shallcross. "This is a pivotal reservoir in the Lehigh Valley and for the whole watershed. We want to manage it as effectively as possible,"

But, again, why is New York City involved? The answer to that lies in the point of the study.

Really, it's all about the water supply for the whole watershed.

When the three Delaware River reservoirs were being built by New York City in the late 1950s/early 1960s, New Jersey was a little worried that NYC would soak up too much water from the river, leaving little for New Jersey. (There are four states interested in Delaware water, so it does get complicated.)

States' disputes are handled by the U.S. Supreme Court and that court issued a decision and all parties to the dispute had to sign on. In this case, that meant New York City, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

A main stipulation of the decision was that New York City had to maintain a certain flow at the Montague (New Jersey) gauge, thus insuring that New York can't take "too much" of the river's waters.

Shallcross explained -- if all signatory parties agree -- the flow rate can be changed; an example is in times of serious drought.  The basin-wide drought management plan, agreed to by the five parties and incorporated into DRBC’s Water Code, calls for reductions in the Montague flow target to help conserve water.

One of the biggest concerns for those three flow managers is how the ocean and its salt waters can affect municipalities that take water from the river. That ocean water washes in and out with the tide but also pushes north, pushing salty water into the estuary and the river.

If that salt water gets pushed too far, it can interfere with the supply of the drinking water that municipalities like Philadelphia get from the river. Basically, municipal water-supply systems can't handle salty water.

So there has to be enough fresh water coming south to push that salt front away.

The idea of using F.E. Walters water to help in that push has been, according to Shallcross, "kicking around for years."

What's creating a sense of urgency are the changes expected from sea-level rise -- more water moving with more force upriver -- and climate change -- maybe more water will come south, maybe less. All the modeling suggests that there will be changes.

"We have to plan for the future," said Adam Bosch, director of public affairs, NYC Environmental Protection. "We don't want to get caught flat-footed. Then people would want to know why we didn't look ahead at how we use our water resources."

"We have to be proactive," he said.

Here's a timeline of what's happening when for this study:

This meeting will take place from  6 - 8 p.m. at the Mountain Lodge Resort, 81 Treetops Circle, White Haven, PA 18661

For further information:

On the study
https://www.nap.usace.army.mil/Missions/Civil-Works/Francis-E-Walter-Dam/Reevaluation-Study/

On the Delaware River Basin Commission
https://www.state.nj.us/drbc/basin/

On New York City's Department of Environmental Protection and its reservoirs
https://cwconline.org/history-of-the-nyc-water-supply/
https://www1.nyc.gov/site/dep/water/drinking-water.page

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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.

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