Planning for the Future of the Upper Delaware River Watershed
By Molly Oliver, Policy Director, Friends of the Upper Delaware River
As the new Policy Director for Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR), being near the Delaware River has always been an important part of my life. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen over time is that historic land use activities and severe flooding have altered the course of streams in the Upper Delaware River region, moving them into fallow fields without the protection of the trees and with seemingly endless soil to be carried downstream. Invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed, Mile a Minute, and Hogweed are crowding out native species in these vulnerable environments and highly erosive banks are collapsing into the stream in many places.
The waterways of the Upper Delaware River Watershed are changing more rapidly than the surrounding landscape can adapt. Unlike the pollution impacts in the lower portion of the Delaware River Watershed, such as stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, toxic sediments, and point source discharges - water quality problems in the Upper Delaware River Watershed come from sources collectively known as “hydromodification.” That’s a big word for physical disruptions on the land and in the water that inhibit natural stream function. These impacts can lead to excessive erosion and accelerated sedimentation that impair aquatic habitat and destabilize streams. These problems are exacerbated due to a changing climate which is causing increasing frequency and intensity of storms in the upper watershed. Delaware, Sullivan, and Ulster Counties have the top three highest number of Presidential Disaster Declarations in the State of New York, with between 19-24 declarations per county (pictured below).
In addition to this set of challenges, we have some unique complications here in the Tailwaters below the NYC Delaware River Basin reservoirs. One of them is the complex water supply and reservoir management decisions that determine how much (and when) water is released from the bottom of the reservoirs and the impacts of those decisions on the coldwater ecosystem and world-renowned wild trout fishery below the dams. FUDR’s angling constituency is very familiar with the ongoing debate about how much water is available in the reservoirs from year to year, and how that water should be fairly allocated to protect the fishery (and other downstream resource needs) while always ensuring a safe water supply for NYC.
A second and less obvious challenge is how the NYC impoundments have permanently changed the hydrology of the Upper Delaware River. Water releases from the reservoirs, even at maximum levels, are not sufficient to clear out the massive gravel deposits that often form at the mouths of highly eroded tributaries. Prior to the construction of the dams, higher baseflows and ice sheet formation in the river were able to more effectively move gravel and sediment downstream each year. As a result, huge deposits of sediment are accumulating and wreaking havoc on the health of the Delaware River.
A goal of bringing awareness to these collective challenges is one of the factors that led to the formation of a unique partnership – the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters Coalition, which includes municipal representatives, local business owners, and conservation organizations who share common concerns about the river. The Upper Delaware River Tailwaters Coalition is forward-thinking and created the first-of-its-kind Stream Corridor Management Plan, which provides a clear picture of the extent of the restoration work needed in the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters. The management plan also articulates a concise set of goals and objectives, as well as policy and management recommendations. The community support garnered through the education and outreach process is critical to the adoption of this plan by the municipalities in the tailwaters region and the implementation of the restoration objectives it identifies.
However, a key component to continuing implementation of the Stream Corridor Management Plan is to secure new sources of funding. Historically the restoration investment "below the dams" in the Upper Delaware River watershed has been comparatively small, but this is beginning to change in large part because FUDR and our partners and allies have successfully managed to expand the discussion beyond the tailwaters region. National and regional sources are beginning to provide meaningful funding and technical assistance to the Upper Delaware River Watershed.
The Upper Delaware River Tailwaters Coalition and the Stream Corridor Management Plan will ensure that future funding is used in ways that meet the needs of multiple watershed stakeholders, maximize on the ground restoration implementation, and leverage additional resources to establish reliable long-term sources of funding that protect water quality and help reinvigorate the regional economy of the Upper Delaware River. It is far more cost effective to deal with our challenges now, rather than wait until they become more expensive and more complex.