For the second time in 4 months, a very large crowd of Delaware River advocates filled the room at the April 5 Delaware River Basin Commission- Regulated Flow Advisory Committee meeting in Hawley, PA. They all came with high expectations of learning more about how the highest level decision makers interact with one another and deliberate over the development of the next management plan for the NYC Delaware River basin reservoirs that directly affects more than 15 million people.  This time around, all five of the 1954 Supreme Court Decree Party Principals from NY, NJ, PA, DE, and NYC planned to be in attendance, which made this meeting even more highly anticipated.

As the day unfolded, it quickly became apparent that the four Decree Party Principals in attendance (the New York State Principal was a last minute cancellation) were in no mood to talk. They didn’t respond to questions during our formal presentations, they were virtually silent during the audience participation portion of the meeting, and they did not field any questions from the audience after their painfully brief statements that ended the meeting.  Many people in the room gave up a day of work and time away from their families to travel to Hawley only to be met with virtual silence from the people who will personally cast the votes on the next Delaware River management plan.

The meeting exacerbated years of pent up frustration among Delaware River advocates  because of the impenetrable shield surrounding negotiations that will determine how the management of the NYC Delaware basin reservoirs will impact river conditions throughout the watershed.  It was clear from comments made at the meeting that negotiations are once again completely stalled and we can expect a 5th consecutive 1-year extension of an unchanged plan by the June 1, 2016 deadline.

The meeting also highlighted something else, how selfish and parochial interests continually result in the complete failure of highly intelligent people to reach agreement on relatively easy solutions that would help protect and restore one of the nation’s most important rivers.

At one point during the meeting, the Delaware River Master (Robert Mason) stated that the Principals have met privately on 19 occasions over the last year and a half. How many meetings does it take to protect a river, especially when many of the solutions are simply not that difficult to implement?

Anticipating an ongoing stalemate in negotiations, the conservation community asked for three simple “interim procedures’ to address aquatic habitat concerns in the Upper Delaware River. These procedures could easily address readily solvable problems including thermal stress, erratic water flows, and the need for more equitable distribution of water releases from all 3 Delaware reservoirs. We suggested they put these procedures into place immediately while negotiators continue to work through some of the tougher issues. Some vague statements about taking our requests under consideration were expressed by some of the Principals in their closing statements, which didn’t leave any of us brimming with confidence, and the state of New Jersey said they were “uninterested” in the absence of a comprehensive re-assessment of the operations of the entire NYC water supply system.

When a graph was displayed  showing a dramatic and rapid flow reduction late last week in the West Branch of the Delaware River (approx. 750 cfs to 100 cfs), there was no response and no explanation forthcoming from any of the Principals. This event also happened to coincide with the coveted and historic opening day of trout fishing season in New York State.  Is it any wonder that businesses, recreationalists, local government officials, and prospective visitors to the upper Delaware region are quickly losing all confidence in their governments’ commitment to protecting this national treasure?

Chris Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, and a seasoned veteran of tough negotiations surrounding river protection efforts nationwide, summed it up nicely when he addressed the Decree Party Principals, “compared to many other rivers around the country with competing resource needs, your problems in the Delaware are really not that difficult to solve”.

The failure to reach agreement for five consecutive years on a plan to manage and protect the Delaware River, one of America’s Great Waters, is now becoming a national embarrassment.  We all need to start telling that story to the national media, on Capitol Hill, in Governors (and Mayors) offices, state legislatures, local governments, and every single local media outlet in the watershed.

We will be in touch soon on next steps. Thanks to everybody who made the trip to Hawley this week. Your dedication and perseverance in tirelessly working to protect the Delaware River is sincerely appreciated and we’ll need more of that positive energy moving forward.

Top Delaware River Decision Makers in “Listening Mode Only” on River Plan