Neighbors Seek to Drain N.Y. City’s Water Reservoirs to Stem Flooding

Ten lawmakers want to drain off some of the massive reservoirs holding New York City drinking water, claiming lower water levels will help prevent flooding in riverside communities.

House lawmakers from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and upstate New York signed on to a letter this week seeking a reduction at the Delaware River reservoirs. The reservoirs help provide drinking water to some 9 million people in New York City and surrounding areas.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., is trying to get the Delaware River reservoirs to be filled no more than 80 percent, arguing that the severe storm earlier this week nearly caused a flood.

“The river came within inches of overflowing in most areas and overran its banks at several points. For our constituents living along the river, this has caused great anxiety and concern,” Murphy and the other lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The other Pennsylvania lawmakers aligned with Murphy are Christopher Carney, Chaka Fattah, Paul Kanjorski, Robert Brady, and Joe Sestak.

Two New York lawmakers, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Arcuri, are also in favor of imposing new limits on the reservoirs, as are New Jersey Reps. Christopher Smith and Robert Andrews.

“Our residents have lived through three floods in three years,” the lawmakers wrote.

Reservoir level targets are set by a five-member commission, representing the New York City, New York State, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

A spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said the system is designed to guard against drought, and water levels must be highest now in the spring to have enough water to last through the hot summer months.

“You’re striking a balance, and any move towards flood protection increases the risk of drought,” said the DEP’s Ian Michaels.

“The danger is that you do not know when the next drought is going to begin. Since 1980 there have been at least six droughts in the system,” he said.

City officials want the reservoirs to reach full capacity by the beginning of June. Currently, the reservoirs are at 102 percent capacity, meaning they are spilling over. In December, levels often dip to about 69 percent.

Michaels said the parties struck a new deal last year that allowed the reservoirs to drain off 125 billion more gallons of water than they would have under the previous operating rules, and officials are working on a new agreement that may allow for further draining.

He argued, however, that critics who contend the reservoirs somehow contribute to flooding are just plain wrong.

“Reservoirs don’t cause floods, even when they’re 100 percent full,” he said.

Michaels pointed to a finding by the U.S. Geological Survey that found after a 2005 flood that the reservoirs, even while full, helped reduce the amount of water running downstream.