At the request of Gov. Ed Rendell, New York City has agreed to release more water from its reservoirs in the Catskills in an effort to reduce the danger of flooding in communities downstream along the Delaware River.
Flood-battered residents, though, say the amount of water to be released from the Neversink, Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs will have little practical effect on river levels, leaving them just as susceptible to a devastating springtime flood.
The plan, announced this week by Rendell, calls for New York to release water on any day when the reservoirs are more than 97 percent full through the end of April. Previously, there was no limit to the amount of water that New York could store in its reservoirs after April 1.
“While we can’t scientifically quantify the benefits lowering these reservoirs will have, continuing to make releases … is a commonsense approach that will provide an added measure of comfort to residents downstream,” Rendell said in a statement.
Since the reservoirs can store a combined 271 billion gallons of water, the agreement to maintain a 3 percent void in them during the remainder of April translates into about 8 billion gallons of water released down the Delaware.
Elaine Reichart, whose house in Belvidere, N.J., has been flooded three times, called that a “minuscule, teeny-weeny” amount.
“They’re giving (Rendell) a bone,” said Reichart, a member of Aquatic Conservation Unlimited, a group calling for lower reservoirs. “We need more than that, a lot more than that. We need them to take us seriously.”
Three major floods between 2004 and 2006 caused several deaths and tens of millions of dollars in property damage along the Delaware. The reservoirs were at or near capacity just before all three floods; unable to store water from torrential rains, they sent billions of gallons cascading down the river and into homes and businesses.
Aquatic Conservation and other citizens groups want the city to permanently lower its reservoirs to 80 percent capacity so they can capture and store more rainwater. The city has resisted, saying its reservoirs need to be as full as possible during summer as a hedge against drought. New York provides drinking water from the three reservoirs, which were built in the 1950s, to 9 million people in the Delaware River basin.
Paul Rush, a deputy commissioner with the New York Department of Environmental Protection, said the agreement will not jeopardize the city’s water supply.
“We’re willing to take actions that can assist in flood attenuation downstream of our reservoirs, provided there is no effect on our mission to deliver (drinking) water,” he said.
Whether the reservoirs can be an effective tool against flooding is a hotly debated question.
The U.S. Geological Survey, Army Corps of Engineers, National Weather Service and Delaware River Basin Commission are working on a model that will evaluate the effect of reservoir voids on downstream flood crests. The $765,000 project is slated for completion by January.
Rendell himself has said that lower reservoirs may not be a cure-all for flooding. Writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer last month, he said that until scientists know for sure how reservoirs impact flooding, “we should not trade drinking water security for (potentially) inconsequential flood crest reductions.”
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