The Forum on Delaware River Flooding

Sponsored by radio station WJFF and Drowning on the Delaware, a group representing victims of the Delaware floods.

Over a span of two years from 2004 to 2006, three devastating floods swept along the Delaware River system taking lives and destroying communities, homes and infrastructure in 4 states. All of these floods occurred while the giant reservoirs at the headwaters of the river were either full or overflowing. The reservoirs are managed by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP).

This forum was organized to examine the causes of these floods and determine whether or not full and overflowing reservoirs could have contributed to increasing the flood crests on the river, and examine why the NYCDEP kept these impoundments at full capacity.

The expert panel concluded that full reservoirs DO contribute significantly to flood crests, and, while managing a water supply system is complex, the NYCDEP is not doing a good job of it.

Listen to the show.

For a written transcript, email:

Forum Participants:

The Moderator: Anthony DePalma

Anthony DePalma covers the environment for The New York Times. He was the first foreign correspondent of The Times to serve as bureau chief in both Mexico and Canada. Starting in 1993, he covered some of the most tumultuous events in modern Mexican history, including the Zapatista uprising, the assassination of the ruling party's presidential candidate and the peso crisis that quickly spread economic chaos to markets all over the world. In Canada, he reported from all ten provinces and three territories, covering natural disasters like the Quebec ice storm and the Red River flood, and important political events such as the creation of the territory of Nunavut. Mr. DePalma has also reported from Cuba, Guatemala, Suriname, Guyana, and during the Kosovo crisis, Montenegro and Albania. His book, Here: A Biography of the New American Continent, was published in the United States and Canada in 2001. From 2000 to 2002, Mr. DePalma was an international business correspondent covering North and South America, and he wrote over 85 of the Portraits of Grief that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2002.


James M. Tierney
Albany, New York
Assistant Commissioner for Water Resources
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Assistant Commissioner Tierney leads DEC’s management team for policy and programs to restore and maintain the physical, biological and chemical integrity of New York’s waters – the central mission of the Clean Water Act.  Mr. Tierney also oversees critical dam safety, flood plain mapping and coastal erosion hazard programs. and watershed, as well as the Hudson River Estuary Program.        
Mr. Tierney served from 1998 to 2007 as the New York City Watershed Inspector General, a joint appointment of the Governor and Attorney General within the New York State Department of Law. Mr. Tierney was an Assistant Attorney General with the Environmental Protection Bureau from 1991 to 2007, gaining experience in all levels of State and Federal Courts in the field of environmental, natural resource and public health law.

“We should keep more void space in the reservoirs…where (they are) just maintained all the time…”

“We literally have to change the way we do everything when it comes to managing water resources.”


Dr. James Miller

James Miller is a professor and Chair of the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, where he has been a faculty member since 1975. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the NASA Goddard Institute for Spaces Studies in New York City and at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. He recently served on a review team for one of NOAA’s environmental research laboratories. He received a Bachelor’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. He has held Visiting Scientist positions at NASA and Princeton University.

“Global climate models indicate that as atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases continue to increase during the next several decades, there are likely to be increased periods of droughts and an increasing frequency of high precipitation events and floods. This pattern is likely to occur in the northeastern United States, and this increased frequency of extreme hydrologic events will put pressure on the management of water resources. It's important that there be an emphasis on finding the appropriate balance in planning for both droughts and floods.”


Dr. Kirk R. Barrett, P. E., P. W. S.
Director, Passaic River Institute
Montclair State University.

“Maintenance of void space is a typical method used by reservoir operators to
provide flood peak reduction. The study by the National Weather Service’s
Middle Atlantic River Forecast Center confirmed that void space in the New York City reservoirs in the upper Delaware Basin would have reduced flood peaks in the 2005 and 2006 floods, and that larger void spaces would have lead to larger peak reductions.”

“Is it certain that maintaining void space in the reservoirs would decrease flooding? Most certainly, the answer is yes.”

Further Background:

Flood of April 2-3, 2005, Neversink River Basin, New York USGS


Peter C. Bousum, VMD

B.A. Franklin and Marshall College
V.M.D.  University of Pennsylvania

On the New Jersey Report*, which sharply criticizes (“…an indictment of…”) the reservoir management practices of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection:

The New York City Reservoirs Safe Yields Report (“Preliminary Assessment of the Safe Yields 7 Operations of New York City’s Major Water Supply Reservoirs with NJDEP Findings”) prepared by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is a detailed and rigorous examination of the scientific and historical data regarding the operation of the City’s Delaware River Basin reservoirs.  It is a clarion call for reassessment and change to more equitably distribute the benefits and the burdens of management of these reservoirs.  Examining in detail the current and historical patterns and practices of use of the waters impounded by these reservoirs, the report is a systematic indictment of the way the reservoirs have been operated.

Drawing on over 40 years of actual operations, meteorological and flow data as well as several historical reports prepared by or for key governmental bodies with interests in the Basin, the report  shows the inequities in water allocation between the City’s “out of basin” diversion use and the “in basin” downstream uses, including potable water supply, flood mitigation, recreation, fisheries and other conservation uses.  For years the City has been perpetuating the myth that it is constantly in danger of running out of water, and used this shibboleth to justify hording far more water than needed for its water supply system.  These increased levels of storage have, not coincidently, increased simultaneously with the recent catastrophic floods that have decimated many communities and individuals over the last four years.

The NJDEP report categorically debunks the City’s mythical mantra by demonstrating that safe yields are higher than asserted by the City while, at the same time, demand has been reduced by over 30% through conservation measures imposed on the City.  It calls for a comprehensive reassessment of all needs and uses and a more equitable apportionment of the water resources of the Delaware River Basin.  A link to the full report is provided below.

On fishermen as members of the river community:
“Fishermen should respect the safety of those downriver citizens that have suffered extensive, repeated damage to their personal lives and the costly infrastructure to the adjacent communities”.

Dr. Bousum is a landowner of river property adjacent to the Upper Main Branch of the Delaware River.  He has been a fly fishermen and advocate of the Upper Delaware fishery for over twenty years.  He is also a victim of all three recent Delaware Floods.
* The New Jersey Report (“NYC Yield Ops”) is a 5.8 MB PowerPoint Presentation (download)



Catherine L. Magliocchetti
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Masters of Environmental Studies
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Bachelor of Science Engineering, Chemical Engineering

On Delaware River Flooding:

1. “More needs to be done to manage in a way that will provide flood mitigation for those living within the Delaware River watershed, as well as continue to provide drought protection for those living outside the watershed.
2. According to the New York State Comptroller’s April 2007 Report, current distribution losses from the Delaware reservoir system to NYC are placed upwards of 30-35 million gallons per day. At that rate, within a little over a year’s time, a 5% void could be realized in the 270 billion gallon system, if infrastructure repairs were to conserve these losses.
3. When the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for a dam, a certain amount of freeboard is considered to be good engineering practice. Good management of the reservoirs would call for a reservoir freeboard, no matter who built or currently controls them – why should NYC be exempt from this practice?”

“ When Governor Rendell called upon the Decree Parties to make releases last April the reservoirs were all at 100% or close to…he cited a common sense approach: let’s lower those reservoirs…”

Further Policy Recommendations and Data Analysis in Support of an Interim Void Policy in the NYC Water Supply Reservoirs (download Word document)