Flooded Pa. Homeowners Blame Spillover from N.Y. City Reservoirs

September 7, 2006

New York City’s thirst for drinking water is clashing with Anthony Harlacher’s desire not to be flooded.

Harlacher, who has endured three major floods in two years, is spending tens of thousands of dollars to raise his two-bedroom cottage in Minisink Hills, Pa., on the Delaware River. At 67, the retired dentist would rather be fishing or boating. Instead, he is overseeing a major construction project — and placing some of the blame for his predicament on New York City’s reservoir system.

The reservoirs “definitely contributed to the chaos down here,” said Harlacher, whose home hovers 10 feet above the ground, supported only by wood cribbing and steel I-beams. “Our good old government can’t keep affording to pay the bill because of the greed of a particular entity.”

New York has traditionally insisted on keeping its reservoirs as full as possible to guard against drought. Now, under pressure from flood-stricken residents and politicians, the city has agreed to consider reducing the amount of water it stores in the reservoirs — a measure that could help diminish the severity of future floods.

Though details must be ironed out, it would be a major change in policy for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, owner and operator of the reservoirs.

“We would like to help in any way we possibly can that is prudent,” said DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd.

Built in the 1950s and ’60s to supply drinking water to the city and suburbs, the Neversink, Pepacton and Cannonsville reservoirs are located in the Catskills region of New York State, at the headwaters of the Delaware River. Together, they supply water to about 9 million people.

The problem, in the view of Harlacher and many other flooded homeowners, is that the reservoirs hovered at 100 percent capacity just prior to the three recent floods. Unable to store water from torrential rains, the reservoirs spilled, sending billions of gallons cascading down the Delaware and into homes and businesses in September 2004, April 2005 and June 2006.

Experts say that had the reservoirs not been so full, they could have stored some of that water and lowered flood crests. A study of the 2005 flood by the National Weather Service concluded that crests could have been reduced by up to 2.4 feet if Cannonsville and Pepacton, the two largest reservoirs, had been lower.

“Could you reduce (flood severity) by managing the reservoirs in a different way? The answer is yes,” said Robert Tudor, deputy executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency that manages the river on behalf of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and the federal government.

Until recently, however, it was drought, not flooding, that most worried officials at the commission. With the basin suffering through nine prolonged dry spells since 1980, flood control “wasn’t a priority,” Tudor said — particularly since, other than a January 1996 flood, there were no significant Delaware River floods in the decades leading up to 2004.

Yet the basin commission’s own governing rules call for flood control measures to be implemented when necessary. The rules empower the commission to “store and release waters on the Delaware River and its tributaries and elsewhere within the basin … to meet flood conditions as they may arise.”

New York City DEP started a “spill reduction” program two years ago that lowers the reservoirs during winter to accept snow melt. Officials from the four basin states and DEP hope for agreement on a wider-scale flood control program by spring, but caution it could take longer as any such program must receive unanimous approval.

Riverfront residents, who are worried about the fall hurricane season, demand a quicker resolution.

Diane Tharp, a math and science teacher whose home along the Delaware has been flooded three times, said officials have known at least since the April 2005 flood that lower reservoirs can help control flooding. She accused the basin commission of dragging its feet.

“I’m a real resilient person, but my resiliency is wearing thin. We’re talking about people’s lives here, whole communities,” said Tharp, 57, who has been hesitant to put her house back together following this latest flood.

Officials say that any attempt at flood control must be balanced against other demands on the river. Some 15 million people in the Delaware basin rely on the river for drinking water. People also use it for fishing and other forms of recreation, and it fuels both heavy industry and agriculture.

By lowering the reservoirs, “you run the risk of being caught short if there is a drought situation,” said Gary Paulachok, who, as the Delaware’s deputy river master, helps enforce a 1954 Supreme Court consent decree that apportioned the Delaware’s waters among the states and New York City. “There are serious social and economic implications for that.”

Computer modeling will tell the city how low it can keep the reservoirs without posing an unacceptable risk to its water supply. The levels will likely change depending on the year, said Lloyd, the DEP commissioner.

New York will demand that any flood control program take into account that its reservoirs be as close to capacity as possible by June, the start of the peak summer season, she said. So even if a program had been in place this year, it likely would not have reduced the severity of the latest flood.

Over the longer term, the commissioner said, the reservoirs’ capacity needs to be increased. “That would allow us to take advantage of storing more water, and at the same time creating excess capacity that could be used for storm attenuation,” she said.

Although the reservoirs were full before each flood event, they still had a moderating effect on flooding, according to DEP. Because the reservoirs act as a funnel, water flows out of them at a slower rate than it flows in. This phenomenon reduced the surge from the June storm by 35 to 40 percent.

“The reservoirs always attenuate flooding, even when they are full,” Lloyd said.

That is small consolation to homeowners like Tharp, who argues that New York can substantially lower the levels of its reservoirs without hurting its water supply. She has been pressing Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who has a seat on the basin commission, to insist that an interim flood-control program be adopted now.

“We want a solution that doesn’t cost anybody anything,” Tharp said. “Just keep the stupid reservoirs down.”

Kurt Knaus, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said Rendell wants to look at all impoundments connected to the Delaware River — not just the three New York City reservoirs — to see how they can be used for flood control and not just as water sources.

“I think the governor is very active in encouraging what New York City is doing and, in addition, he’s trying to take it a step further,” Knaus said.

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