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Strong Showing at DRBC RFAC Meeting

Posted on December 07 2015

Conservation Community Makes Strong Showing at DRBC Upper Delaware River Meeting

High Level DRBC “No-Shows” Send Bad Message to UDR River Advocates

The Upper Delaware River conservation community showed up in numbers at the December 3rd meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission’s Regulated Flow Advisory Committee (RFAC) in Hawley, PA. More than 100 people were in the room to hear from the Decree Parties about matters related to the 2016 water management plan (“OST-FFMP”) for the NYC Delaware River basin reservoirs. The meeting also provided conservation organizations, local elected officials, government agencies, river-related business owners, and members of the public with an important (and rare) opportunity to share their views, ideas, and concerns with Decree Party members.

River advocates did their part, voicing articulate, informed, and relevant perspectives on the inability of the Decree Parties to establish forward movement on critically needed policy issues including adoption of a thermal protection program, elimination of dangerous “yo-yo” releases, improved baseline conservation water releases, and increased stakeholder transparency as we move towards the expiration of the current plan on June 1, 2016.

Unfortunately, while committee staff from each party were represented at the meeting, all 5 key decision makers (“The Decree Party Principals”) chose not to attend. Speculation abounds for the reasoning behind their absence. Could it possibly be that all five Principals independently had scheduling conflicts on matters more important than a plan that impacts more than 15 million people both inside and outside of the Delaware basin? Are the dysfunctional relations among the water management plan negotiators and the tension among some parties just too uncomfortable for all of them to even be in the same room together? Or did they just not want to face what were sure to be some challenging questions from the public in the open environment of the RFAC meeting? We may never know for sure, but one thing is certain, the absence of the Decree Party Principals created a palpable feeling of disrespect toward audience participants that hung over the room all day. Is it too much to ask that the people who actually cast the vote on the plan take four hours out of their schedules to listen and respond to the people who are most directly impacted by their decisions? Many in the audience sacrificed an entire day from their work and families only to be let down by their own government representatives who decide the future of the river.

Despite the Decree Party Principals being MIA, the upper Delaware conservation community did a great job relaying their views in a respectful and productive manner. Thanks to Peter Kolesar for once again demonstrating just how easy it should be for the parties to quickly adopt a thermal protection plan. The water needed for such a plan is infinitesimal, none of the parties would be adversely affected, and the economic and ecological benefits derived are so substantial. It is mind-boggling that the parties can’t put this one to bed immediately. Dean Frazier from the Delaware County Department of Watershed Affairs reemphasized the findings of the 2014 UDR Economic Study. We were pleasantly surprised to hear from many people in the audience who are familiar with these types of studies who suggested that the economic value of the Upper Delaware River was vastly understated in the 2014 study. Theresa Allen, Co-Chair of the Upper Delaware River Business Coalition, reinforced the economic perspective and discussed how river management decisions never take into account the downstream economic impacts on local and regional business owners who increasingly rely on a healthy river for their prosperity.

There were many other high points during the meeting and one of them was a presentation made by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Evidently, the frustration in NJ about the level of dysfunction surrounding the FFMP negotiations has motivated government officials in that state to develop their own model, known as “Riverware”, for the management of the NYC water supply system and downstream water resource needs. According to NJ officials, this new model attempts to honestly reflect the spirit and intent of the 1954 Supreme Court Decree that governs reservoir management. In a rare public demonstration of acrimony among the parties, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection read a formal statement prior to the NJ presentation that disassociated any city involvement or support for the NJ approach. So it appears that we now have two models to consider, similar in framework but different in some of their outputs, and at least two of the parties have an apparent disagreement about how they can work together.

Another high point of the meeting featured New York City and the DRBC attempting to explain a very curious statement made in the aftermath of the Cannonsville dam incident in July of 2015. As an emergency response, NYC began rapidly dumping and diverting maximum amounts of water out of Cannonsville reservoir to take pressure off the dam. They repeatedly assured the public there would be no detrimental effect on the NYC water supply even if, under the worst case scenario, the entire reservoir was drained. This statement continues to confuse and confound UDR advocates especially because requests from the public (and a U.S. Congressman) for a tiny amount of water prior to that incident were denied for fear of water shortages. Adding to the confusion, while the reservoir was never completely drained, some 12 billion gallons was lost to the system but, in the ensuing months, the system quickly recovered to normal conditions. This further supports river advocates’ long held position that, in all but the most dire circumstances, there is enough water to satisfy multiple resource needs. Peter Kolesar summed it up nicely during his presentation when he posed the question: “Which is it? You can’t have it both ways.”

During the public comment session, there was universal support for all of the requests made by conservation interests earlier in the meeting. Chris Wood, President and CEO of National Trout Unlimited, told a compelling story about how Klamath River stakeholders in the northwest U.S. broke through an even more intractable situation and came up with a compromise approach that satisfactorily met multiple resource needs in that watershed. The most salient part of his story was how, unlike the Delaware River, multiple party agreements were accomplished on a river that is catastrophically water constrained. Other speakers honed in on the most important needs of the watershed including The Upper Delaware Council, Andy Boyar (former UDC Chair and Town of Highland Supervisor), long time fly fishing guides Lee Hartman and Joe Demalderis, and Maya Van Rossum from the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Thanks to Maya for formally requesting that the Decree Party Principals personally attend the next RFAC meeting and pledge to schedule that meeting well in advance of the June 1, 2016 deadline for adoption of the next water management plan.

FUDR and our coalition partners will be sending out follow-up action items in the near future to this list which will help sustain and build on the momentum we generated last week at the RFAC meeting. Great job everybody! The UDR conservation community is growing stronger and we thank all of you for taking the time to attend the RFAC meeting!

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