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Flow and Drought Management

Water supply shortages and disputes over the apportionment of the basin’s waters were among the primary reasons that led to the creation of the DRBC in 1961. DRBC's first important challenge came with multiple years of drought in the 1960s.

A review of the commission's 50-year history demonstrates that the DRBC continually develops and assimilates new information and participants; offers leadership to build knowledge and consensus; and seeks creative, win-win solutions to water resource challenges. Indeed, its use of science, adaptation, and collaboration has realized accomplishments that a static, nearly 60 year-old court decree could not achieve.

Brief History/Overview

The U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954 that settled years of interstate conflict by apportioning the waters of the Delaware River allowed New York City (NYC) to divert up to 800 million gallons per day (mgd), on average, from its three large reservoirs built on headwater tributaries, with the condition that enough water be released into the Delaware to meet a minimum flow objective of 1,750 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Montague, N.J.

The Delaware River Basin Compact creating the DRBC grants the commission broad powers to plan, develop, conserve, regulate, allocate, and manage water resources in the basin. However, the DRBC's power to allocate the waters of the basin is subject to an important limitation: the compact prohibits the commission (comprised of the four basin states and the federal government) from adversely affecting the releases or diversions provided in the 1954 decree without the unanimous consent of the decree parties (four basin states and NYC).

It became obvious from the 1961-1967 "drought of record" that NYC could not withdrawal 800 mgd and still have enough water for the required compensating releases to the Delaware River to meet the Montague minimum flow objective of 1,750 cfs. A new operating regime was needed to manage the NYC Delaware Reservoirs under the new “drought of record” and to address a flow need not recognized by the Supreme Court in 1954 – the need for minimum flows (or “conservation releases”) to sustain aquatic life. There were two choices – resort to further litigation or test the value of the DRBC to develop an equitable solution. Luckily, the latter alternative was chosen.

Negotiations began in 1978 and culminated five years later in the "Good Faith Agreement." Drought management aspects of the 1983 Good Faith Agreement were included in the DRBC regulations known collectively as the Water Code, and conservation releases from the NYC Delaware reservoirs for the protection of fisheries were established in a DRBC docket (D-77-20 CP). The decree parties unanimously consented to each of these instruments – the docket and the regulations.

Three serious main stem Delaware River floods between September 2004 and June 2006 added yet another important management issue for consideration: the potential use of water supply reservoirs to enhance flood mitigation.

Accordingly, the decree parties (with hydrological modeling and facilitation support provided by DRBC staff) have been engaged in a complex, collaborative effort to balance the multiple, sometimes competing uses of NYC’s water supply reservoirs while recognizing the rights established by the 1954 decree. This effort resulted in a “Flexible Flow Management Program” (FFMP) unanimously agreed to by the five decree parties in September 2007 (and later amended in December 2008), which was implemented through May 2011. The decree parties signed an agreement for a new interim FFMP, which was initially in effect June 1, 2011 through May 31, 2012, and one-year renewals of this reservoir operating plan were announced in May 2012, May 2013, May 2014, May 2015, and May 2016. The current FFMP, which will be in effect through May 31, 2017, is intended to meet water supply demands, protect fisheries habitat downstream of the NYC-Delaware Basin reservoirs, assist with flood mitigation, and repel the upstream movement of salt water in the Delaware Estuary. The five decree parties will use the additional time to further evaluate the interim reservoir management plan now in place and use the experience to help guide ongoing negotiations to develop future multi-year agreements. Additional details, including the current FFMP agreement and the May 31, 2016 press release announcing the one-year FFMP extension through May 31, 2017, can be viewed on the web site of the Office of the Delaware River Master, which administers the provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court Decree of 1954.

The current FFMP agreement relies on the use of NYC's Operations Support Tool (OST) to manage the water that is forecasted to be available in the three upper basin NYC reservoirs and guide the selection of releases. Additional OST information is available on the NYC Department of Environmental Protection's web site