New York City water supply threatened by drought
By Environmental News Network
Monday, December 10, 2001

A drought emergency has been declared for the New York City reservoirs in the Upper Delaware basin. The drought could affect the over 17 million people who rely on the waters of the Delaware River Basin.

New York City, which lies outside the watershed, gets roughly half its water from its Upper Delaware reservoirs.

Storage in three large water supply reservoirs at the headwaters of the Delaware River has dropped from drought warning to drought levels, triggering reductions in the amount of water released from the reservoirs into the river and the amount diverted out to New York City and New Jersey.

As of Dec. 3, combined storage in the three reservoirs was 66 billion gallons, over 100 billion gallons below normal, and 24 percent of capacity. The three reservoirs -- Cannonsville, Pepacton, and Neversink -- are located in New York State's Catskill Mountains region west of the Hudson River and owned by New York City.

To protect drinking waters east of the Hudson River, on Dec. 5 New York Governor George Pataki designated the East of Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed as a Critical Resource Water, enhancing the protection of this drinking water supply.

"Nine million New Yorkers receive their drinking water from the New York City Watershed, making it essential that we protect this water supply and maintain the highest standards for water quality," Governor Pataki said.

Trout Unlimited is concerned about the region's fish. As a result of the declared emergency, flows out of reservoirs on the West Branch of the Delaware, the East Branch of the Delaware, and the Neversink River will be cut to a trickle. The national wild trout and salmon advocacy group warns that the drought emergency threatens fish kills and the health of a fishery worth more than $30 million each year to the Catskills economy.

"These paltry flows will be an ecological disaster for the fisheries in these three rivers and an economic disaster for the communities that depend on them," said Nat Gillespie, Trout Unlimited's Catskills coordinator.

"With the loss of the recently laid brown trout eggs, as well as mortality of adult fish, we can expect lower fish populations for the next few years. Populations of insects and other invertebrates will also take a hit."

The group called on New York City Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg to take an active role in improving flow management in the Upper Delaware in order to avoid future catastrophes.

Rainfall is roughly 10 inches below normal for the year in the upper basin. The last five months have been very dry in the central portion of the watershed, particularly in the Philadelphia area, central and southern New Jersey, and in extreme northern Delaware, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission which governs water flows in the region.

The states of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared drought warnings last month and requested that residents conserve water voluntarily. A public hearing on whether to declare a drought emergency for the entire basin and implement additional water conservation measures is scheduled for Dec. 18 at the commission's offices in West Trenton, New Jersey.

A drought emergency declaration by the commission would enable it to enact special management provisions under its drought operating plan. These special actions are aimed at conserving storage in the regional reservoir system, and to provide for tighter control of salinity intrusion in the tidal Delaware River.

The New York City Watershed consists of some 2,000 square miles of land and water bodies in eight counties extending 125 miles north and west of New York City, encompassing 60 towns and 11 villages in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson River Valley.

The 19 reservoirs in the watershed comprise the nation's largest unfiltered surface drinking water supply, providing 1.4 billion gallons of water per day to residents of New York City and Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Ulster counties.

Learn all about the NYC water system: