NJ, NYC locked in dispute over Upper Delaware water supply

By Brenda Flanagan

“I think the river’s being used as a political football and this is one of America’s most important rivers,” said Jeff Skelding, executive director of Friends of the Upper Delaware River.

Skelding says, New Jersey and New York City officials are making waves over how to divvy up the river water after the current agreement expires at midnight.

“They’re fighting like children in a sandbox,” Skelding said. “If you want to protect a river, the last thing you want to do is fight over the water.”

Skelding’s worried about an upstream trout fishery that needs lots of cold, clean water. With five reservoirs upstream, New York physically controls water released downriver and a Flexible Flow Management Program among four states and New York City has directed how it’s shared. Under normal conditions, Jersey says it withdraws 65 million gallons of water a day at Lambertville to feed reservoirs like Round Valley that provide drinking water for about one and a half million people in Central Jersey. But New Jersey wants 100 million gallons a day guaranteed, even during drought conditions.

“We’ve tried to compromise on that number, but really the spirit of this is to try to benefit the state of New Jersey by having access to additional water that we have right to,” said Dan Kennedy, water resources management for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “And we’ve shown time and time again we can allocate upward of 100 million gallons a day and not risk New York City’s water supplies.”

Jersey officials claim that New York City, which depends on the reservoirs for about 90 percent of its drinking water, fudges the numbers to short Jersey.

“We’re not saying ‘no’ to New Jersey. What we’re saying is that meeting their desires and their needs, needs to be part of trying to address everyone’s needs,” Adam Bosch from New York City Water Supply, New York Department of Environmental Protection, said.

In terms of laws and agreements, there’s only one absolute and that’s a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. It says that the flow rate in the Delaware can’t go below 1,750 cubic feet per second — that’s at the point where the river enters New Jersey.

Tubing, kayaking and canoeing liveries need a reliable river.

“They have to start thinking about the small businesses, this is their livelihood. I think we’re being pinched enough by government,” said John Ringhoff.

Ringhoff owns the Chew Chew Grille in Phillipsburg. They share retail space with Twin Rivers Tubing and depend on them to keep customers flowing.

“Once the summer starts kicking up, they bring in a lot of people and it generates a lot of revenue for the Chew Chew Grille,” said Chew Chew Grille cook Zeth Bacho.

New York state, New York City, Pennsylvania and Delaware have allegedly agreed to extend the flow program for another year. Negotiations continued all afternoon.

“’If I don’t get what I want, you’re not going to get what you want!’ That’s what this whole debate has boiled down to,” Skelding said.

“With kayakers, and hikers and families this is a good recreational area, so it means a lot to so many people,” said Ed Harabin from Clinton.

Residents and advocates hope Jersey can find a compromise that floats everyone’s boat.