Planning for the Future of the Upper Delaware River Watershed

Planning for the Future of the Upper Delaware River Watershed

By Molly Oliver, Policy Director, Friends of the Upper Delaware River

Photo credit: Garth Lenz. View of the Pepacton Reservoir, the beginning of the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters

Photo credit: Garth Lenz. View of the Pepacton Reservoir, the beginning of the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters

I’m Molly Oliver and I was recently hired as the Policy Director for Friends of the Upper Delaware River (FUDR). I’m a native of Delaware County, NY and a Registered Landscape Architect. I’ve spent the last five years working for Delaware County, NY in the Departments of Planning and Watershed Affairs, where I spent a significant amount of time working with FUDR and other watershed partners developing a comprehensive Stream Corridor Management Plan for the Upper Delaware River Tailwaters. I also worked on policy matters and local land use issues in the Upper Delaware River watershed above the NYC Delaware basin reservoirs. 

Bank failure, Delaware County, NY

Bank failure, Delaware County, NY

For most of my life, I have lived near the Delaware River, and have seen firsthand that the waterways of the UDR 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 Upper 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 Trailwaters 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.

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 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.

Wheels for Water: Learning First-Hand about Wilmington’s Water

On October 14th, a brisk Fall Sunday afternoon, approximately 20 water-minded cyclists could be spotted cruising Wilmington, Delaware’s city streets as part of “Wheels for Water”. This water-themed cycling event was designed to showcase some of the city’s prominent water features and projects. The tour was a cooperative event between cycling experts from Urban Bike Project of Wilmington, water experts from the City of Wilmington’s Public Works Department, and Delaware’s Clean Water Alliance.

2018 Midterm Election Takeaways for the Delaware River Watershed

While some pundits debate whether the November midterms exhibited a "blue wave" nationally, the Delaware River Watershed certainly showcased the phenomena. Democrats flipped a total of nine seats. The watershed is now represented by 18 Democrats and three Republicans. The Coalition welcomes 11 new members to the Delaware Watershed House delegation! Of significance, the 116th Congress will see a record number of women and racially diverse representatives including five women newly elected within the boundaries of the watershed.

Organizations Unite Across State Lines for Day of Action that Urges Governors to Prioritize the Delaware River Basin

On November 27th the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, New Jersey Audubon, and New Jersey League of Conservation Voters delivered 2,760 petition signatures to Governor Phil Murphy as part of National Wildlife Federation’s “4 the Delaware” campaign. The state’s First Lady, Tammy Murphy, accepted the petition signatures and received a briefing on the “4 the Delaware” campaign from the delivering organizations. The delivery to Governor Murphy is one of three actions taking place across the Delaware River Basin on November 27th and 28th. Governor Murphy (NJ), Governor Cuomo (NY), and Governor Wolf (PA) will all receive in-person petition deliveries, with a total of 8,129 petition signatures delivered throughout the basin.

Clean Water for Delaware: A Collaborative Approach

Water shapes the State of Delaware. From the bustling city-scape of Wilmington to the quaint store fronts of Bethany Beach; the headwaters of Nanticoke to the Delaware Bay, water plays an important role in Delaware’s economy, health, and environment. The second smallest state is home to 25 miles of coastline, 500 square miles of wetlands, 540 square miles of bay, 2,900 acres of lakes and ponds, and 4,500 miles of rivers and streams. With a geography knitted together by waterways, Delaware’s waters provide $7 billion to the regional economy, 70,000 jobs, and $2 billion in wages. Why, then, is Delaware facing substantial water quality and flooding issues?

The Delaware River Makes "History": Meet The Final Winner In The Delaware River Means Photo Contest

The fluttering sound of laughter rising over the splashing of water, the satisfaction of finding the perfect spot to pitch a tent that gives you a vibrant view of the sunset along the river, the stories told by campfire that you’ll forget in the morning but meant so much in the moment-- these are all memories. While one may not find these memories listed in any text book, they all make up one’s own personal history.

Trees for Trout: Ashokan-Pepacton Trout Unlimited Improves Habitat for Delaware River Fish

This story is about planting trees along the East Branch Delaware River on October 20. First, I want to tell the tale of how a few dedicated tree planters got out on a cold, rainy October day. It started three years ago with a Letter to the Editor in the Catskill Mountain News by local fishing guide Lenny Millen. He reasoned that the poor trout fishery in the East Branch above the Pepacton Reservoir, was due to an old silted-in millpond (Wawaka Lake) that caused thermal impairments downstream on a 13 mile stretch of the river – especially during the warm summer months. It made a lot of sense and I contacted Lenny and a friendship and a partnership has developed since.

Collaborating, Elevating, and Advocating at the 6th Annual Delaware River Watershed Forum

There’s strength in numbers and power in working together. This is what we believe at the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, and why we invite all 131 of our member organizations to our annual Delaware River Watershed Forum. Going on its 6th year, the Forum took place on September 25-26 in Cape May, NJ. Over 240 attendees joined us to share information, build new relationships, and coordinate to drive a collective vision to protect and steward the Delaware River Basin’s natural resources. Topics emphasized this year included Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and National Wildlife Federation’s 4theDelaware campaign.