Along the Delaware Day 1: An interview with Jeff Skelding, Friends of the Upper Delaware

Faces of Rivers: A profile series from American Rivers

This interview is part of the American Rivers’ Along the Delaware tour. Day one of the tour was in Hancock, NY.

American Rivers: The Flexible Flow Management Program, developed in 2007 and updated in 2017, is the latest plan to manage reservoir releases from the NYC Delaware River basin reservoirs building on decades of previous plans. How have the dams and the FFMP impacted the river in the Upper Delaware and throughout the entire basin? Can the FFMP be improved to protect both down basin needs and the water supply interests of NYC?

Jeff Skelding

Jeff Skelding: In the ’50s and ’60s the city of New York made its way to the Catskills to build giant dams on the Delaware River, creating the Cannonsville, Neversink and Pepacton reservoirs — so now the Delaware River supplies, on average, up to 60% of New York City’s (and surrounding counties) water supply.

The dams flooded the valleys, permanently removed people out of their homes, caused community strife, and also transformed the river below the dams from a warm water system to a cold water system (because the cold water from the bottom of the reservoirs is released from the dams). Historically, there were some trout in the river, but now with the cold water they are super happy and the river is a big bug factory supporting world-renowned wild trout fishing.

The Upper Delaware is a ‘tale of two watersheds’. Above the dams, it’s known as the “New York City’s watershed”. The city has invested billions over the decades to make sure the reservoirs water is clean. Below the dams, we don’t have that level of investment. So downstream of the dams, if we want economic benefits, we need activities such as tourism, recreation, and fishing. And we have world-renowned fly-fishing here for beautiful wild trout. 140 miles from downtown Manhattan, look around — it’s like beautiful wilderness.

The dams created major change for aquatic habitat and hydrologic nature of the whole river in terms of flows. The Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that New York City could have its dams and reservoirs, but they also need to take care of the river downstream of the dams — the FFMP is an outcome of that.

Can we improve the plan? There is both tension and opportunity. We feel like during normal times (not drought) there is plenty of water in the reservoirs to satisfy all watershed stakeholder needs — these include water supply for New York City, as well as protection of the wild trout fishery in the upper river, and ensure Pennsylvania’s and New Jersey’s water supply needs. Another key reason to release more water from the reservoirs is to fight saltwater intrusion — because of sea level rise, we need to push the salt front back downriver so it doesn’t impact City of Philadelphia’s drinking water intakes. This is a growing concern as the threat of climate change continues to increase.

New York City is also worried about climate change. There’s a lot of uncertainty around water supply when you look out 10, 20, 50 years. In part, that’s why they are extremely conservative with every drop of water in the reservoirs.

Cannonsville Dam

I believe we can find that balance between ensuring New York City’s water supply while also maintaining a healthy river and adequate water availability for all of our downstream communities. I hope the groundwork laid by my organization and our partners, through the FFMP and other conservation advocacy work, will ensure the river remains healthy while providing water supplies to New York City and downstream even as climate change presents new challenges.

AR: Without the partners engaged in the Flexible Flow Management Plan and the opportunity for public engagement, do you think the river would be adequately protected? What important roles do the key partners contribute?

JS: When you engage a diversity of watershed stakeholders, good things happen. Different partners bring different perspectives, strengths, skill sets.

In the early days of reservoir management it was drought or deluge. The operators would open the valves way up or shut them down. We’ve come a long way.

Now, we have a multi-dimensional plan. We have the governments of the four states, New York City, conservation organizations and local people who recognize that more water released from the dams equals more tourism, more economic benefits. Having all of these entities engaged has helped move us forward and improve river management.

AR: We know the Flexible Flow Management Plan helps to ensure water supplies for cities downstream and downpipe (New York City); how has the plan served the integrity of headwater communities near the river’s source and the water supply reservoirs?

JS: The FFMP has evolved into a comprehensive watershed management tool. It has gone from a one-dimensional, utilitarian water supply engineering plan, to a multi-dimensional plan that addresses the needs of many stakeholders. The plan has gotten better because our advocacy has gotten better.

A paddler in fog along the Delaware river

The plan requires the four states and the biggest city in the US to come together and discuss how to manage the Delaware River to meet multiple needs.

Our mantra has always been, we need more water below the NYC dams. We need more water released from the reservoirs to benefit fish, tourism, the economy and downstream needs.

The headwaters of any river are so important to the river’s overall health. Here on the Delaware, that’s even more true. The management of the upper river impacts everything downstream, from water in Philadelphia and Trenton to horseshoe crabs in Delaware Bay. The upper Delaware is absolutely a critical crown jewel natural resource.

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